Feds Keeping Defendant Deals Secret

The Sixth Amendment guarantees public trials. But a recent investigation by the Associated Press has found that 5,000 defendants who passed through the federal courts had the details of their cases kept from public view.

At the request of the AP, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts conducted its first tally of secrecy in federal criminal cases. The nationwide data it provided the AP showed 5,116 defendants whose cases were completed in 2003, 2004 and 2005, but the bulk of their records remain secret.

On the one hand, there is good reason for this. Most of these defendants cooperated with the Government for a lesser sentence and provided information about confederates and other wrongdoers. If this information was not sealed, they would be in physical danger when they arrive at their designated prisons. No matter what you think of the system that allows defendants to purchase their freedom through ratting out others, they should not be placed in physical danger.

On the other hand, it's a morally bankrupt system that rewards defendants with lesser sentences in exchange for providing incriminating information about others. It increases the likelihood of false testimony. The law provides that the defendant must provide truthful testimony, but "truthful" in practice means truthful according to the Government. If they don't provide the Government's truth they don't get their reward. It's a powerful incentive to lie.

The secrecy has increased during the Bush Administration, and doubled in the last three years:

The data show a sharp increase in secret case files over time as the Bush administration's well-documented reliance on secrecy in the executive branch has crept into the federal courts through the war on drugs, anti-terrorism efforts and other criminal matters.

The percentage of defendants who have reached verdicts and been sentenced but still have most of their records sealed has more than doubled in the last three years, the court office's tally shows.

TalkLeft contributor Last Night in Little Rock is cited in the article:

"This follows the pattern of this administration," said John Wesley Hall, an Arkansas defense attorney and second vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "I am astonished and shocked that this many criminal proceedings in federal court escape public scrutiny or become buried."

It's not just the outcomes that are being sealed. It's entire cases and proceedings. That's just plain wrong.

While some of the cases are not sealed permanently, such as those in which indictments come down before arrests and the sealing lasts only until the first defendant is arrested, an unknown number are not in this category.

Reporter's Commmitee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) has more on the secret dockets.

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  • Re: Feds Keeping Defendant Deals Secret (none / 0) (#1)
    by aw on Sat Mar 04, 2006 at 08:21:52 PM EST
    It's not just drip-drip-drip anymore. We're drowning.

    Re: Feds Keeping Defendant Deals Secret (none / 0) (#2)
    by Peter G on Sun Mar 05, 2006 at 10:15:39 AM EST
    TL: I'm afraid your excellent new graphic designer has confused "censored" with "censure."