The letter was a complaint about "The System" and its latest victim a man I will can Joe.

One night, the letter said, Joe heard somebody trying to break into a neighbor's house. Being a good citizen, Joe became "involved". He phoned the police. When they asked his name, he identified himself.

When the police arrived, they found that another neighbor had already frightened the intruder away. The police asked Joe for a description, but he hadn't gotten a good look at the man.

Later the police arrested a suspect and called Joe to testify in the case. When the suspect asked for a jury trial, the case was continued.

Joe said to the prosecutor, "In as much as I can't identify the suspect anyhow, couldn't I just make a deposition right now so that I don't have to lose another day's pay to testify?" The prosecutor said no. Joe would have to appear again when summoned.

Now the plot thickens. Joe is subpoenaed to testify in a civil case in another jurisdiction; then he is subpoenaed to testify in the burglary case at precisely the same time. Two cases, two cities, same time.

The lawyer in the civil case calls the prosecutor in the criminal case and explains that Joe can't be in two places at the same time. Nevertheless, after Joe fails to appear as a witness in the criminal case, two deputy sheriffs come to Joe's house on a night when he is not at home, threaten to break down the door if they are not admitted, and then search the homes with drawn guns, terrorizing Joe's wife and children. The deputies have no search warrant, the letter adds.

Quite a lively story. I called Joe, who verified that he had indeed found himself in trouble for trying to do the right thing. Then I called the prosecutor's office and asked how such things can happend. "It didn't happen exactly that way," a prosecutor told me. "When the lawyer in the civil case asked us to excuse Joe we told him we couldn't. And we can't use depositions in criminal cases, we must produce witnesses who can be cross-examined."

The lawyer in the civil case gave me a different version. "When I heard about the conflicting subpoenas," he said, "I called the prosecutor and said we needed this man's testimony. We had subpoensed Joe first, but we would be as cooperative as possible. If they wanted him early in the day we'd use him late, or if they wanted him late we'd finish with him early. The prosecutor said he couldn't give me an answer on that yet because he didn't know whether the suspect would plead guilty, ask for a continuance or stand trial. So I said, "When you find out what you need, call me and we'll work it out.' He never called back, so I assumed they didn't need Joe."

The sheriff told me his deputies had a bench warrant for Joe's arrest. It did not authorise them to search any premises for evidence, but it did authorize them to enter any premises where they had good reason to believe Joe could be found.

The sheriff said that his deputies did not threaten to knock down the door, and to the best of his recollection have never broken down a door to serve a beach warrant. He says the door was opened for them, and that when they entered they saw the defendant in the criminal case, but not Joe, the witness. (Joe later told me that he is now acquainted with the suspect, having met him while playing football about six months after the night he heard an intruder and called police.)

One deputy says he drew his gun when he saw a rifle in the room but hoistered his weapon again before the children appeared in the room.

While the deputies searched for Joe, somebody alerted the lawyer in the civil case. The lawyer called the judge in the criminal case and asked him to call off the deputies because Joe was the innocent victim of a mixup. Upon hearing this, says the lawyer, "the judge called them off."

But then the judge ordered Joe to appear to defend himself against a charge of contempt of court. The civil case lawyer appeared with Joe and again explained to the judge that Joe hadn't deliberately disobeyed a subpoena. The contempt charge was dropped, and the prosecutor expressed regret that Joe had been subjected to such harassment.

Now that you know some of the background, you will understand why I have used oo names in this report. There are enough points of disagreement in the stories told by various participants in this affair to make one wonder whether anybody's memory of the events is 100 per cent accurate. And that makes it unwise to sit in judgment of anybody involved in the case.