Tensions in the Persian Gulf are complicating the administration of justice in a Buffalo courtroom.
Twenty-seven key military witnesses in an upcoming National Guard weapons-theft trial are expected to be on active duty in "Operation Desert Shield" when the trial begins, U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny said Monday.
So Skretny is allowing federal prosecutors and a defense attorney to put its witnesses on videotape.
"This is an extraordinary remedy that is allowed under federal court rules in extraordinary situations," Skretny said.
Court officials said it is highly unusual to use videotaped testimony in a federal criminal trial, adding they could not remember the last local case in which it was allowed.
The case involves Glenn Kellar, 47, of Albion, one of three area National Guard members charged last year with running a weapons-theft ring in Rochester and Buffalo. Kellar, now on suspension from the Guard, was a sergeant at a Rochester maintenance shop run by the 134th Maintenance Company of the New York Army National Guard.
Kellar was charged with conspiracy and the theft of gun parts to make an unspecified number of M-16 rifles, .45-caliber pistols, M-60 machine guns and other weapons. Two other guardsmen, Michael C. Mason of Lancaster and Paul Orsini of Rochester, pleaded guilty to felony charges in October 1989. A fourth suspect, Edgar Bastian, a Rochester police captain and gun dealer who is not a Guardsman, will be tried in Rochester in April.
The 27 military witnesses -- four called by the prosecution, 23 by Kellar's attorney -- are Western New Yorkers who belong to the 134th Maintenance Company. The unit is now on active duty in Fort Dix, N.J., and is expected to be shipped overseas to the Middle East before Christmas, according to court documents.
Ironically, Kellar's jury trial begins on Jan. 15 -- the same date as the United Nations' "get out of Kuwait" deadline to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "It is an extremely unusual situation. The attorneys on both sides would prefer to have the live witnesses in the courtroom for the jury," U.S. Attorney Dennis C. Vacco said. "But this is better than not having the witnesses in the trial at all."
"My concern is that a videotape of testimony diminishes the ability of a jury to judge the demeanor of a witness," said Glenn E. Murray, Kellar's lawyer.
Before Christmas, Murray and Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc C. Gromis will fly to Fort Dix to question the 23 defense witnesses. The four prosecution witnesses will be flown to Buffalo, at the government's expense, and will testify with Skretny presiding.
Skretny told the two lawyers he will rule later on the admissibility of the 27 videotapes. The judge said the situation could change if the Army decides not to send the Guard unit overseas.
Since his indictment in October 1989, Kellar has maintained his innocence.
"His stance is that after two other targets of the investigation were caught red-handed, they falsely accused him in order to obtain leniency from the government," Murray said.
Murray said the two other targets were Mason and Orsini.
There were concerns at one time that the weapons were being distributed to terrorist groups in Northern Ireland and other overseas locations, Vacco said. But the results of an investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms show the firearms were almost certainly "disposed of in the United States, and not to terrorist groups," he added.