(Trinidad Guardian) The Witness Protection Programme has collapsed. So said attorney Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, who implemented the programme 17 years ago, while he served as attorney general under the United National Congress government. Established in 1996, the programme was geared to protect witnesses in major criminal cases from physical harm and intimidation. Today, Maharaj sees the programme, which falls under the Justice Ministry, as ineffective.
“The programme has totally collapsed as a result of the Government’s incompetence, lack of passion and know-how to fight crime. You cannot fight crime without having an effective and adequate programme. In my view, there is no Witness Protection Programme. There may be something called Witness Protection Programme. It is incompetence at its highest,” said Maharaj.
He said when the public reads about criminal cases falling by the wayside or accused people being acquitted because crucial witnesses for the prosecution are either gunned down or refuse to testify, fingers will point at all arms of the State involved in the administration of justice.
Under the Justice Protection Act, offences which may give rise to protection under the programme include murder, manslaughter, possession or use of firearms and ammunition, aggravated assault, shooting or wounding, armed robbery and arson. Maharaj said an effective witness protection programme was an essential component of a comprehensive criminal justice response to protect those who are key to reducing crime.
On Wednesday, state witness Omwallie Smith, through his attorney Subhas Panday, said he did not wish to participate in the preliminary enquiry after being threatened. Smith is a witness in the case against two men charged with the killing and dismembering of Diane Williams and her ten-year-old son, Shaquille Morgan. Every year its costs the State $20 million to keep state witnesses and their families in the programme alive.
From 2003 to 2007 approximately 240 people were in the programme. Of the 240, 11 witnesses withdrew. This statistic was provided in 2008 by then national security minister, Martin Joseph in Parliament. For the programme to work effectively, Maharaj said proper safe houses must be sought not only in T&T but in America, England and Canada. Changing the identities of key witnesses was also essential.
Maharaj: We tightened the programme
In 1996, Maharaj along with former national security minister, Brig Joseph Theodore (now deceased) launched the programme in which witnesses would testify in court in exchange for guaranteed security and protection until a decision is made by the court. The establishment of the programme helped in convicting drug lord Dole Chadee and nine others for the murders of four members of a Williamsville family in 1994.
The trial against the men crumbled when Levi Morris, one of Chadee’s accomplices and Clint Huggins, a Special Reserved Police officer turned state witnesses. The State brokered a deal with Morris, giving him immunity and a new identity. After he testified, Morris and his family were sent abroad to live.
Huggins was put in a safe house. However, a week before he was due to testify for the prosecution, Huggins abandoned the safe house and his body was found in Mount Hope in February of 1996. Huggins’ deposition was later used in Chadee’s trial. In September 1996, Chadee and the gang were convicted and sentenced to death. They were hanged in June of 1999. After Huggins’ death, Maharaj said they had to tighten up things and the programme remained effective under his watch.
“When the UNC demitted office the programme began to deteriorate,” Maharaj recalled. “As a matter of fact, several witnesses had to leave the programme because there was no interest shown by the State.” On Tuesday, Maharaj said one witness recently abandoned the programme after receiving death threats on his cell phone. The witness informed Maharaj that he was put in a safe house with no police protection.
“He went to the police and the police told him to go and get the records from the telephone company.” In light of the threats, Maharaj has dispatched letters to the Prime Minister, the acting Commissioner of Police and National Security Minister to look into the matter. Maharaj said witnesses often run scared because the promises made by the State are not kept.
“Today, the public know where the safe houses are. The Government is not providing proper security. So how could you fight crime if you do not provide the resources?”