Protecting witnesses

Our view: Extent of intimidation requires federal help for local prosecutors

March 29, 2009

Johnathan Cornish's dispassionate account of the contract killing of a witness in a Baltimore murder case should convince the most skeptical lawmaker that stronger protections for witnesses are needed. The 17-year-old who appeared in federal court last week was the end of a chain of Bloods gang members recruited to kill Carl Lackl of Rosedale and keep him from testifying. The teenager didn't know who hired him. He didn't know the victim. He just knew that "somebody was telling on [a] homeboy," and that was reason enough to pull the trigger.

The increasing problem of witness intimidation has played havoc with the prosecution of criminal cases in Baltimore. City prosecutors end up with less-reliable evidence, without key testimony and with weaker cases as a result. When a witness is in danger, prosecutors have few options to protect him - a few hours of guard duty by a sheriff's deputy, a night or two at a relative's or a dingy hotel, and in extreme cases, relocation of a family across town or across the country. But State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has limited resources to provide such protection; last year, she spent about $175,000 to help 185 families.

That's why federal legislation proposed by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore is so necessary to protect victims and witnesses and shore up the system of justice. The bill would provide grant money for witness protection in cities and counties that average at least 100 homicides a year. It also would allow for training assistance from the U.S. Marshals Service, which has a 39-year record of protecting federal witnesses.

More than half of prosecutors in large cities or jurisdictions and 43 percent of district attorneys in smaller locales face this same problem, according to the National Institute of Justice. The "stop snitching" culture may have been popularized in Baltimore, but it's a serious threat to securing justice for crime victims across the country and requires federal assistance.

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