Police unit formed to find `underground' witnesses

September 02, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Saying that about half of the city's shooting cases are dropped because of witness problems, the Baltimore state's attorney's office announced yesterday that a small police unit will be dedicated to finding witnesses in nonfatal felony cases and other felonies.

Three police investigators will be scouring the streets looking for witnesses who are "underground," or not cooperating with authorities. It is part of an effort to secure their testimony and, in the end, convict more violent offenders, officials said.

The homicide division in the state's attorney's office already has two police detectives dedicated to finding witnesses.

Uncooperative witnesses have long been a problem in the city's criminal cases, and prosecutors point to them as the biggest obstacle in their trials.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said the newly assigned detectives are expected to have a significant effect on nonfatal shooting cases and other felonies.

"We are moving forward with a partnership that will benefit our citizens and boost public safety," Jessamy said in a statement.

Jessamy and Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark hammered out the deal this week to send detectives to the courthouse. The investigators began their new posting yesterday.

"I am well aware that Baltimore's talented prosecutors have long been hindered by the failure of witnesses to come forward," Clark said in a statement. "I believe this new initiative will be an extremely valuable one and lead to a significant increase in violent crime convictions."

According to prosecutors, between 35 percent and 50 percent of nonfatal shooting cases fall apart before trial because witnesses cannot be found or they change their testimony on the stand.

If a witness is wanted for trial, the court will send a subpoena. If the person does not respond to the subpoena, a prosecutor may request a warrant from the court to allow a witness to be jailed until the trial.

However, in some instances, witnesses cannot be found.

With the new unit of detectives, investigators will have time to go to a neighborhood to search and find the witness, then take the witness to court, officials said.

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