Drug trial hits a snag over witness immunity

Court officials indicate appeals court might have to settle the issue

Posted: Thursday, September 25, 2008

The trial of two alleged drug-dealing kingpins hit a snag Wednesday when lawyers wrangled over which witnesses should get immunity for their testimony.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Lawyers for Aaron Washington and Vonnie Williams said they want their witnesses to have the same deal some of the prosecutor's witnesses have: They won't be prosecuted based on what they say during testimony.

But Chief Assistant Attorney General Susan McLean said no way, explaining that giving immunity to defense witnesses is "dicey" because they could potentially admit to all manners of crimes. Court officials indicated that an appeals court might have to settle the issue.

Washington and Williams have been on trial for the last week and a half facing multiple drug-dealing felonies, including an organized crime charge that could net them 99 years in prison.

The trial is one of the larger, more complex drug cases in recent memory in Juneau. It had been moving at a faster-than-expected pace before Wednesday's unforeseen legal imbroglio.

Juneau District Attorney Doug Gardner, who rested the state's case early Wednesday, called a number of witnesses who testified that they were drug mules or drug dealers for Washington and Williams, and characterized the pair as leaders of a criminal enterprise.

Many of the state's witnesses have confessed to using, smuggling or dealing drugs while on the stand, adding that they are either getting time knocked off their prison sentences or avoiding prosecution altogether in exchange for their testimony.

Williams' and Washington's lawyers argued that similar considerations should be given to their witnesses.

"If these witnesses don't get (limited) immunity for their testimony in the case, we are simply unable to put on our defense," said Thomas Schulz, Williams' attorney.

Schulz said he wanted to call witnesses that would contradict the state's witnesses and show that his client wasn't the head of a drug business, but one of many users and dealers who bought, sold and did drugs together.

Williams pleaded guilty to stealing checks and drug possession earlier this year.

Washington was found guilty of dealing drugs after a smaller drug trial in July.

"(The witnesses) are not going to talk about robbing and raping and laying waste to the land," Schulz said. "They're going to talk about drug dealing ... with the state's witnesses."

But those witnesses may not testify if they might be prosecuted for any crimes they admit to while on the stand, Schulz said.

Schulz said one potential witness told him that she'd been threatened by her probation officer and told not to testify in the case.

Collins dismissed the jury early Wednesday and sought court-appointed attorneys to represent the witnesses for the defense, three of whom are serving time in Alaska prisons.

The trial is scheduled to resume this morning.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2238 or alan.suderman@juneauempire.com.

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