Protecting witnesses: no simple task

When CBS aired its teledrama ''The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck'' last month, Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz seized the chance to distribute a public warning: ''Could what happened to Kathyrn Beck happen to you?'' The clear implication was that it can, it has, and it will.

Mr. Dershowitz, known for his courtroom shtick, served as legal counsel for the film, which depicts the incredible experiences of a young woman who police believed to have information about a suspected terrorist. Without being afforded the rights, or even courtesies, extended to defendants or those suspected of a crime, Kathryn Beck (played by Marlo Thomas) is browbeaten ir13l,8pil47l,0,13l,8 p

by law officers, hounded by the media, and threatened by those who think she has something to hide. Her lawyer tells her that since she is ''merely a witness ,'' there is little that can be done to protect her.

Though ''Kathryn Beck'' is fictional, the point is that there are thousands like her in real life who as witnesses to a crime are ill-treated by the criminal justice system. Many go through long legal ordeals. Some are detained or even jailed without cause. Lives have been ruined and careers threatened.

Although officialdom's aid to witnesses has been spotty, some states have passed laws which at least acknowledge the rights of witnesses. But it's basically the victim-witness or the criminal-witness who is afforded the most protections. For instance, over 20 states levy taxes to provide crime victims and their families financial aid. Of course, some of these victims also testify in court as witnesses. And a federal witness protection program - although sometimes sharply criticized for its ineffectiveness - is aimed at sheltering those who turn state's evidence.

But those who suddenly become witnesses by chance seem to be more vulnerable than others. For this reason as well as a widespread desire not to get involved, authorities explain, citizens who observe a crime or have knowledge about some unlawful activity are often very reluctant to come forward and tell what they know.

However, mounting reports of attacks, rape, and murder taking place near bystanders who virtually donothing are triggering a campaign to hold witnesses legally responsible to report a crime and aid the victim if possible. Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Rhode Island are among several states which have passed so-called ''good Samaritan'' laws, making it a misdemeanor not to offer aid in an emergency.

Helping others in trouble should be expected in a civilized society. But laws are not likely to produce good Samaritans. Conscience and compassion are more apt to prod a helping hand.

Also, a legal requirement to be a witness and testify in court, as some now advocate, could run head-on with constitutional considerations, such as those protecting citizens from self-incrimination. Further, it is suggested that required reporting of a suspected crime or suspicious behavior could spawn a society of private policemen. This mandate could be misused as a rationale for spying on others - a practice which is expected, and even rewarded, in some nondemocratic nations.

Obviously, US society still has a long way to go in sorting out the rights and responsibilities - if not the role - of witnesses. Professor Dershowitz calls for ''fairer'' treatment. For example, he says witnesses should be allowed to bring lawyers with them when questioned; they should never be jailed alongside convicted criminals; and their constitutional rights should be held at least as important as the rights of criminal defendants. These all seem on the mark - and are already being practiced in a few jurisdictions.

Further, the job of turning ''bad Samaritans'' into good Samaritans would appear to be more properly the task of families, the church, and schools. Media encouragement of, rather than warnings against, actions based on brotherly concern would also help.

Finally, let's not make witnesses victims. The recent jailing of a 12 -year-old who refused to testify against her stepfather who reportedly abused her is a perversion of the system. Justice is rarely accomplished by using the law punitively against the innocent, who should be encouraged, but not intimidated, into upholding it.

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