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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A witness intimidation crisis in Philadelphia

WSJ Blog picked up this lengthy story from the Philadelphia Inquirer, documenting rampant witness intimidation, violence, and the inability of city prosecutors to prosecute violent crimes. One witness saw his own written statement to police posted on a wall as a flier, with the following words scribbled on it: "Don't stand next to this man. You might get shot." From the Inquirer:
"It's endemic. People are frightened to death," said District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham. "We've had witness after witness intimidated, threatened, frightened." And the city cannot guarantee their protection. "That fear, that's real," said Jamie Egan, a former city prosecutor. "When people would ask me if I could guarantee their safety, I would say, 'Unfortunately, I cannot.'" Abraham has long fought for more money to protect and relocate witnesses in criminal cases. For 15 years, she has repeatedly complained, to no avail, that the city's program was underfunded and failing to meet a crucial need. Local funding for witness relocation is a fraction of the spending in the vaunted federal witness-protection program. Efforts to pump city money into the local program have failed year after year.
Witness intimidation is part and parcel of the more general violence, insecurity, and lack of resources in so many inner city neighborhoods. According to the National Institutes of Justice, witness intimidation is a longstanding problem in poor, high-crime communities like Philadelphia, especially in gang-dominated neighborhoods. Over a decade ago, studies warned about localized violence and witness intimidation in areas of concentrated poverty and crime. Stories like the Inquirer's suggest that the problem is now even more widespread. As I argue in the book, states need resources comparable to the federal WITSEC program to protect witnesses, particularly poor witnesses who lack resources themselves and may be stuck in violent neighborhoods. As a parent of a murdered young witness mourned in the Inquirer article:
"If you see something, you better look the other way. That's a sad thing to say to a victim, but I'm the number one candidate saying 'Don't tell nothing unless you can take care of yourself, because the city don't have nothing in place to help you.'"