There is, of course, much national debate about illegal immigration, and the nature and extent of any rights of illegal immigrants. Whether the immigration status of a witness to crime is admissible in a criminal trial was explored in a reported opinion this week from Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in a case called Tshibargu Kazadi v. State of Maryland.
The court’s opinion indicates that Kazadi was tried for murder, with the two key witnesses being his next door neighbors, a 15-year-old young man and his mother. The teenager was taking out the trash, when he saw the defendant shoot the victim, and the juvenile and his mother then said they saw the defendant run away with a gun in his hand. They waited some five months before coming forward to the police, because the mother said they were afraid of the defendant and his family, and supposedly told police she was worried about a deportation order.
Defense counsel sought to obtain information from the prosecutors about the immigration status of the witnesses, and a copy of any deportation order, alleging that this information may show that if the witnesses cooperated by testifying, it may give them relief from deportation. The state insisted there was no agreement for special treatment of the witnesses, and the trial judge agreed that there should be no discovery of immigration information about the witnesses.
At trial defense counsel sought to cross-examine the witnesses about their immigration status, arguing that if there was a deportation order it would have bearing on the character for untruthfulness of the witnesses. The trial judge again did not allow that inquiry, and the defendant was convicted of second degree murder and appealed.
The appellate court reviewed previous cases in Maryland about disclosure of immigration status, noting that they hold that immigration status of a witness is generally not admissible to impeach that person’s credibility on a non-immigration matter, and that disclosure of such evidence may insert unfair prejudice into the case. In the absence of any evidence of a “quid pro quo” offering favorable treatment in exchange for testimony, the appellate court held that it was not an abuse of discretion for the trial judge not to allow discovery or testimony about immigration matters regarding the witnesses.
As the court noted, defense counsel’s suspicions about some deal with the prosecution was mere speculation, and it was improper to risk “injecting unrelated immigration issues involving mere bystanders into this murder trial.”
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.