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Immunity Law Gets Immediate Use

August 29, 1997
By: David Grebe
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Hit-and-run suspect Corby Helton is facing a new trial, thanks to Missouri's new witness immunity law.

The law gives prosecutors the option of granting witnesses immunity from prosecution in return for testimony that might be self-incriminating.

Granting immunity removes a witnesses' ability to use their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid testifying.

Helton was first arrested in February 1995 as a suspect in a hit-and-run accident. The judge threw the original case out, after witnesses Cole County Prosecutor Richard Callahan needed for the case invoked their Fifth Amendment rights.

Moments after the witness-immunity law took effect midnight Wednesday, Helton was arrested again. He is now charged with leaving the scene of an accident, and is being held in the Cole County Jail on $50,000 bond.

It was fitting that Callahan became the first prosecutor in the state to use the new witness immunity law. As head of the state's prosecuting attorneys' association, Callahan had lobbied for the bill earlier this year.

While Callahan refused to comment on Helton's case directly, he has previously suggested that this is one case he would consider refiling if he could use witness immunity.

"I've been a prosecutor for 25 years, and my predecessors wanted to see this legislation," Callahan said. "This was the priority for the prosecutors' association."

The new law gives prosecutors the authority to grant immunity from prosecution for any crime for which the witness's testimony is required.

It differs from the Federal witness immunity law, which merely precludes prosecutors from using protected testimony to investigate or prosecute witnesses.

Callahan said that he would have preferred a statute similar to the Federal one.

"We accepted this as a compromise," Callahan said.

While prosecutors are generally supportive of the new legislation, Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, said he had too many doubts about the legislation to support it when the Senate passed it in May.

"The legislature is generally inclined to support anything that assists in the prosecution of cases," Jacob said. "My concern is about the idea of forcing people to testify - it's the right of a person to be left alone."

Jacob also said because the proposal came up toward the end of the session, he felt that the issue was too complex to vote on without debate.

"My vote was an acknowledgment that there are two sides to this issue," he said.