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Refuge for Endangered Witnesses

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 1998


For the past year, Linda Smith (not her real name) has lived in hiding under the threat of death.

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After testifying against the father of her child in a sexual-molestation case, Ms. Smith, her family, and friends have all been repeatedly threatened and harassed. And members of the father's family have made good on other death threats - one is a convicted murderer.

"My daughter and I live a nightmare existence within four walls," says Smith. "I can't see friends or family, get a job, get a library card. My daughter can't go to school."

Now, under an unusual California program that is attempting to become a model for states across the country, Smith has hope.

Launched in January, the California Witness Protection Program (CWPP) helps relocate such endangered witnesses at state expense, and create new legal identities for witnesses threatened with retaliation for their testimonies. Different from the well-known, federal Witness Protection Program, the CWPP gives help where local law enforcement needs it most - in the 97 percent of crime cases that are not federal infractions.

"We spend millions on cops, courts, and jails but almost nothing on the essential ingredient that helps win convictions - witnesses testimonies," says state Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, who drafted the law.

Looking at Los Angeles-wide studies showing that 40 percent of crimes went unprosecuted for lack of available witnesses, Mr. Hertzberg and others crafted a law based on the federal model, but one that in some ways goes further. As such, it is the first state program that tries to tackle problems that were previously dealt with only through a hodgepodge of confusing programs and laws.

"The issue is not just the murder of witnesses but, how do you keep violent syndicates and gangs from intimidating and thus controlling whole communities," says Sergio Robleto, a 26-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department's South Central bureau, who helped write the new law. He notes that more than 1,000 homicides here went unsolved from 1990 to 1995 for lack of a single witness - and that 10 witnesses who did testify were killed. "The gangs know how to support each other in force. Now it's time that communities create and use the tools they have to do the same," he adds.

What's the difference?

Certain kinds of witness-protection funds already exist in many states. But allocations specifically earmarked for protecting witnesses are small - $150,000 per year for all of Los Angeles County, the nation's most populous, for instance. Such funds might cover the cost of a couple of nights in a local hotel, or the price of a U-Haul trailer to move belongings across town.

By contrast, the new state program offers specific provisions to cover moving costs, change in identity (Social Security numbers, license, birth certificate), health-care costs, and other expenses deemed necessary by local authorities. Most important, it covers crimes not included in the federal program such as gang-related threats, extortion, domestic violence, hate crimes, crimes involving the elderly or handicapped, and drug-dealing.

"Witness relocations are very expensive and time-intensive propositions," says Johnny Boulden, deputy chief investigator for the San Diego County district attorney, who has used the new state program a number of times. "This will give agencies across the state access to other funds. Otherwise, there is a disincentive to help."

It is this greater latitude in spending money - in addition to a provision that makes witnesses eligible for protection even during the pretrial or pre-arrest phases - that is attracting other states' attention.