How anonymous witnesses saw justice done

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The Independent Online

Anonymous witnesses are now called by the prosecution in more than half of all murder trials. The practice has allowed police to secure convictions after encountering a wall of silence from people too frightened to appear in court. Many, particularly those involved in gang-related violence, have only been prepared to speak out on the condition of anonymity. The real identity of a crucial witness to the new year murders of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis, the Birmingham teenagers caught in gang crossfire, was only known to the prosecution and judge.

The man, a criminal who was given the alias of Mark Brown, had his voice altered and was hidden from Leicester Crown Court by a screen. His evidence helped to convict Marcus Ellis, Michael Gregory, Nathan Martin and Rodrigo Simms.

The prosecution of the killer of Magda Pniewska, the Polish care worker who died last year when a gunfight erupted between two youths, was also down to anonymous witnesses.

Anonymous evidence was also crucial in securing the conviction of Joel Smith for the killings of Toni-Ann Byfield, a seven-year-old north London schoolgirl and Bertram Byfield, the man she had regarded as her father. But there has always been a tension in judges' minds between allowing a defendant to know the identity of their accuser and convicting dangerous criminals. Defence barrissay the spectacle of an anonymous witness being ushered into court can influence juries.

But the use of anonymous witnesses was thrown into chaos last week by the House of Lords ruling that it was unjust. Ministers were planning to bring in legislation next year to give statutory protection to anonymous witnesses, and to extend their use.