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November 28, 2013

Law experts: Payments to witnesses rare, foolish

Police payments to witnesses in exchange for testimony is “very rare” because disclosure of the payment can discredit that witness’s statements and raise red flags about witness and police motivation, according to local legal experts.

Lawrence police paid a city man, David Rivera, $1,000 in 2007 for his testimony about a murder that year in Lawrence, according to the suspect’s defense attorney in the case, the Essex County District Attorney’s office and Superior Court documents.

Ronald Ranta, the defense attorney, and Carrie Kimball Monahan, spokeswoman for Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, said the attorneys involved did not know of the payment before the jury trial began. But because the payment was not disclosed before the trial, the judge barred Rivera, a key but reluctant witness for the prosecution, from testifying.

“It raises ethical issues about the manner in which the testimony is obtained, and gives the defense additional avenues of attacking the credibility of that testimony,” said Michael Coyne, associate dean and professor at Massachusetts School of Law in Andover. “It’s a foolish mistake without any real benefit.”

Payment in exchange for testimony, with the exception of expert witnesses, “almost never” happens, said Salem, N.H., attorney Mark Stevens.

“Typically a defense attorney as part of discovery asks for (disclosure of) promises and inducements,” Stevens said. “Usually it’s in the form of a plea deal. It’s absolutely bizarre.”

Larry Siegel, a professor of criminal justice with expertise in delinquency, criminology and corrections at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said when payments are made, they typically come from the district attorney’s office, not the police.

“I’ve never heard of this. It’s controversial when the prosecutors pay because it taints the evidence,” Siegel said. “A bunch of prosecutors have cut that out for that reason. And typically when they pay, it’s minimal — transportation, expenses. But they wouldn’t say, ‘We’ll give you $1,000.’ You could argue for when a prosecutor pays an expert witness, but that is that. For the police to do it, that’s unheard of.”

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