Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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When lawyers sought testimony from 44-year-old Adriana Mejia about her participation in a double murder, she invoked her constitutional right to remain silent.

So the lawyers sought to compel Mejia’s testimony, and a judge agreed to do so.

Given that the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment states no person “shall be compelled” to be a witness against himself, what prompted Chicago U.S. Magistrate Sunil Harjani to rule as he did?

It’s complicated.

Basically, the judge found that because Mejia has no legitimate fear of further prosecution, she has no right to remain silent.

This complicated civil lawsuit is set against the backdrop of a horrible crime — the 1998 double murder of a young Chicago couple — Jacinto and Mariano Soto — and the kidnapping of their two children.

Mejia, one of the killers, wanted to raise the kidnapped children — an infant and a 3-year-old — as her own.

She allegedly paid two neighbors — Arturo DeLeon-

Reyes and Gabriel Solache — $600 to assist her.

The trio was quickly caught. Mejia pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life. The two men were convicted after a trial.

But the men’s convictions were overturned in 2017 when a judge ruled that their confessions were coerced and could not be used as evidence against them in a future trial. That’s when prosecutors dismissed charges.

DeLeon-Reyes and Guevara subsequently filed a civil lawsuit seeking compensation for the nearly 20 years they spent in prison. Authorities, however, contend that the men are entitled to nothing because they participated in the crimes. But they need Mejia’s testimony to prove it.

The Fifth Amendment is — and ought to be — a tough nut to crack. The U.S. Supreme Court once described the protection against self-incrimination as reflecting “a complex of our fundamental values and aspirations” that “marks an important advance in the development of our liberty.”

But like other constitutional rights, it is not unlimited. Harjani concluded in his 26-page opinion that it is “limited to instances in which the witness has reasonable cause to apprehend danger from a direct answer.”

Mejia refused to testify because she said she feared prosecution for other crimes related to the murder. She also said testifying posed a problem because she “has not exhausted all of her post-conviction or appellate remedies.”

The judge acknowledged he “does not take the present question lightly.” That’s why he delved into questions of law and circumstance in reaching his decision.

He noted that Mejia is already serving a life sentence and “the judgment of her convictions has been final for nearly two decades.” He pointed out that “time has run out for any realistic pursuit of post-conviction relief and for the prosecution of other crimes Mejia might have committed at the time of the homicides.”

Harjani conceded that “the Fifth Amendment applies so long as there is a possibility of prosecution,” even if “unlikely.” That’s why judges must find an “absolute bar to subsequent prosecution” to override it.

Ironically, Harjani cited a local case as precedent — the Archer Daniels Midland price-fixing scandal in the mid-1990s. In that case, convicted ADM executives invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying in an anti-trust case. The courts ruled against them because the statute of limitations had run out on any further criminal prosecution.

Mejia also cited potential vulnerability to a perjury charge. Harjani ruled that argument didn’t apply, either, because “the Fifth Amendment only covers perjury arising from past testimony, not future testimony.”

He noted Mejia can’t be re-tried for the crimes she’s already been convicted of and found she has no exposure to other crimes stemming from the murders because the statute of limitations — three years in most cases — has expired.

As a final matter, Harjani pointed out that “it is the court, not the witness, who decides whether the Fifth Amendment applies.”

“The quest for the truth continues to remain a fundamental principle in our civil litigation system, and the invocation of a privilege limits, rightly so when justified, that inquiry. But that claim of privilege must be more than fanciful,” Harjani wrote.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.