A judge granted immunity from federal prosecution Tuesday to a Bethlehem police informant who's worried that he would incriminate himself by testifying in the John Hirko Jr. trial.
But U.S. District Judge James Knoll Gardner declined to order John Neison IV to testify, unless the defense obtains immunity from state prosecution for him.
Neison refused to testify last week in the civil rights and wrongful death trial, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. The defense, which considers Neison a key witness, asked Gardner to force Neison to testify.
In a written ruling, Gardner said he would reverse his decision if the defense lawyers find a county judge willing to grant him immunity from prosecution on state charges.
Neison presumably would testify that he bought drugs at the Hirko house four times in April 1997, at the direction of city police.
According to prior proceedings in the trial, he also would tell the jury about other information he gave to police that helped police prepare for the raid of Hirko's home.
Neison allegedly told police that Hirko was armed and using drugs the night of the deadly raid.
At the time Neison was a Moravian College student. Campus police allegedly caught him with a small amount of marijuana and, instead of charging him, referred him to city police as an informant.
It is unclear what information he is afraid of disclosing that could lead to him being prosecuted.
There is no ongoing criminal investigation of Hirko's death, at least any that's been publicly disclosed.
In 1997, then Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher cleared city police of any criminal wrongdoing after state police investigated the raid.
Defense lawyers have claimed that Neison is concerned about drug charges. But lawyer John Karoly Jr., representing Hirko's family, has maintained that Neison is worried about being drawn into a criminal case involving Hirko's death, even though no officials have expressed an interest in pursuing such a case.
Gardner's grant of immunity prohibits the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from using any of Neison's potential testimony against him in a criminal case. Nor can the U.S. attorney use the testimony to launch a criminal investigation.
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