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No error in refusal to tender 'missing witness' instruction

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a man’s drug convictions, finding the District Court didn’t err by refusing to give the jury a requested “missing witness” instruction.

Lorenzo Tavarez was charged with two counts of distributing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine following two controlled drug buys at his apartment by a confidential informant. Before his trial, the CI disappeared and couldn’t be located by the prosecution or defense. She was the only person who had seen exactly what happened during the controlled buys leaving the government with only circumstantial evidence against Tavarez.

He requested the District Court give the jury the “missing witness” instruction, telling the jury that it could infer from the CI’s absence that the informant would have provided information unfavorable to the government’s case. The District Court declined.

Judge David Hamilton noted in United States of America v. Lorenzo Tavarez, No. 09-3879, that the missing witness instruction is disfavored in the 7th Circuit, but the District court had discretion to give it in unusual circumstances. Tavarez showed that even if called, the informant would have been able to provide relevant, noncumulative testimony on an issue in the case. But he couldn’t show that the CI was peculiarly in the other party’s power to produce. Neither the prosecution nor defense could locate the CI.

“And a witness’s status as a confidential informant does not necessarily give rise to a sufficient relationship with the government so as to render her unavailable to the defense,” wrote Judge Hamilton.

Tavarez couldn’t show the CI was available only to the government, so the District Court did not err in refusing the missing witness instruction.

The 7th Circuit also found a jury could have reasonably reached its guilty verdict based on the circumstantial evidence presented at trial. Most importantly, Tavarez’s fingerprint was found on one of the bags of drugs the CI provided to law enforcement.

"The case against Tavarez was not overwhelming. We can imagine innocent explanations for the fingerprint and the buy money in the men’s clothing,” wrote the judge. “But the ability to imagine an innocent explanation is not equivalent to harboring reasonable doubt. This circumstantial evidence was not so weak as to preclude a guilty verdict.”
 

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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