A shooting victim’s willingness to testify against the drug dealer who shot him is big news in Philadelphia: Inquirer story here–Despite Threats, Victim Testifies in Phila. Court. That such testimony is perceived as rare (and courageous) reflects the widespread violent witness intimidation suffered by Philly urban residents, and documented in this Inquirer series: Witness Intimidation Crisis. As I’ve written elsewhere, witness intimidation is most pernicious when the threatened fear that the government won’t protect them. That’s why these legislative efforts to improve state witness protection programs are so important.
Here’s a story of violent irony. Last Friday, two young New Jersey women were sentenced for participating in the execution of a friend–Latyria Nealy–because the gang to which all three women belonged thought Nealy might be snitching. Having lured Nealy to her death on suspicion of being a snitch, one of the women, Nikki Moore, then became an informant herself, providing “significant, extensive, and comprehensive” cooperation which earned her two years off her 12-year sentence. The other defendant apparently also cooperated in some fashion but did not get any credit. Story here: Pair Sentenced in Gang Execution: Asbury Park Woman Killed for being a ‘Snitch’. The irony, of course, lies in the cycle of violence in which people work off their sentences for killing suspected informants by becoming informants themselves. The deeper challenge is helping young people surrounded by crime who are caught in the middle–between violent gangs that threaten those who talk, and a criminal system that punishes those who remain silent.
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s witness intimidation series (previous post here) triggered a congressional hearing. You can read the testimonies here, including criticism of the series for exaggerating the extent of the problem. See testimony of Michael Coard. Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) subsequently called for a law that would make witness intimidation a federal offense; witness intimidation is already a state crime. Story here. In a similar development, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) introduced the Witness Security and Protection Grant Program Act of 2009, to provide assistance to state and local witness protection programs. Press release here. More indications that the law of informant use will look very different a few years from now.
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.'”
Journalism professor and author John Fountain weighs in on the “stop snitching” phenomenon in the Chicago Tribune. He describes urban neighborhoods permeated with fear and insecurity, and takes issue with criticism of residents who are unwilling to talk to police. He writes:
In my experience growing up in an impoverished Chicago community like those under siege, it boils down to an issue of trust. And many who live in the city’s most murderous neighborhoods — who have also witnessed police and political corruption and a trail of broken promises — simply don’t trust the authorities enough to come forward. By doing so, they could be laying their lives on the line. It isn’t that people don’t want to tell. They do. And it isn’t that they aren’t concerned about their neighborhoods. They are. But to come forward is to risk everything, even in a world where “safety” is always relative.
Fountain’s piece highlights a central reason that the public debate over criminal justice is so fractured: people and groups have radically different experiences and expectations. In neighborhoods where police are perceived as responsive, where people do not worry constantly about their personal security, where the legal system seems fair and effective, it makes eminent sense to talk to police. In neighborhoods where none of this is true, it might make sense not to. Such differences in perception show up quite publicly in debates over “stop snitching,” but they quietly affect all aspects of the criminal process, from the way people relate to defense lawyers to the kinds of punishment people consider to be fair. In my view, this is one of the reasons that the “stop snitching” debate is valuable: it encourages the public exposure of some very different legal realities.