Unrealistic expectations of witness protection

The government intends to enact witness protection legislation and has suggested that a discourse take place around this issue so I thought it useful to give an insight into how these schemes operate. I was also drawn to the topic because of a statement by the Minister of Public Security, Mr.  Khemraj Ramjattan. He has claimed that the law is necessary to give comfort to persons who are now ‘scared to death’ to testify in some of the cases thrown-up by the many forensic audits the government commissioned but the results from which have fallen far below public expectations (Gov’t schedules consultation on witness protection bill SN 23/09/2016).

future notesThe little I know of witness protection programmes suggests to me that they are mainly the alternative to prison, etc. for criminals who are willing to inform on their former colleagues and are usually very demanding of those who enter them. Thus the minister is either using the occasion of the introduction of the law to excuse the government’s incapacity to extract what the public expected from the forensic audits or he is unwittingly setting himself up to be very disappointed.

The United States of America has arguably the oldest and most successful national witness protection scheme which, since its establishment in 1971, has protected some 18,400 witnesses and is a good place to start a consideration of the subject. Gerald Shur, who is credited with establishing the scheme, claims that 95% of the people who have gone into witness protection are dangerous criminals who have made a plea bargain arrangement. For example, Shur’s Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program recounts the story of one inspector who had to resettle a former motorcycle gang member who had murdered a woman and then ‘cut her open and put charcoal inside her to use as a grill’.

The genesis of the US witness protection scheme can be traced to the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. But the phenomenal growth of organised crime and gang violence in 1960s/1970s America made it imperative that some means be found to encourage people to testify against crime families, and the modern witness security programme (WITSEC) was born. Shur tells an insightful story of trying to get a witness who was the owner of a New York trucking company to testify against crime boss Johnny “Sonny” Franzese in 1961.

Franzese had demanded half the profits from the trucking business and his men had vandalized the trucks and beaten the owner with baseball bats until he agreed to their terms. The owner of the company appealed to the Justice Department for help and when Shur suggested that he had to testify in court, the owner was not amused! Franzese was caught on tape discussing the best way to commit murder: he would cover his fingertips with nail polish, wear a hairnet, and dismember the body so that he could run it through the garbage disposal! Having failed to gain the cooperation of the owner, Shur mused aloud that there had to be a way to get witnesses to testify against the mob and one of the agents asked ‘Would you?’

National, regional and local witness protection programmes are now to be found in dozens of countries. In the best of these, witnesses are typically provided with authentic new identities, housing and basic living and medical expenses. Job training, employment assistance and 24 hour protection may also be provided. WITSEC prides itself on the fact that no witness who has followed its programme guidelines has ever been harmed or killed.

However, in 2007, when some fourteen states in the USA had witness protection programmes, one commentator claimed that witness protection at these local levels is a misnomer, that the programmes don’t protect anyone and people die. Nonetheless, Shur claimed that ‘It is difficult to find a major criminal case, whether it be the Watergate scandal or the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, where WITSEC witnesses have not played a pivotal role’.

Many persons in witness protection programmes continue to live in fear of being discovered, and Shur claimed that the programmes appear to ‘permanently alienate witnesses from both the rest of the world and themselves’.  One woman in the San Francisco County’s witness protection programme  whose family was brutally murdered by a man she was helping to convict, said that ‘Being in this programne is hard because you’re isolated, … You can’t see your family. You have to cut loose your friends. You basically feel like a caged animal’ and she still does not feel safe (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/ story.php? storyId=14034143).

Therefore, entering a witness protection programme is not a walk in the park and is mainly a last resort for criminals who have information to bargain with. I do not believe that many people are sufficiently motivated to implicate members of the previous regime to make them want to enter a witness protection programme. Indeed, the present ‘scared to death’ explanation appears to me more of an excuse for not testifying!

Of course, it may be that the minister has some other ideas, and with sufficient incentives might be able to persuade some high (and low) minded persons to enter the programme. But I do hope that once the law by which he is setting so much store is in his hands, he does not again have to explain the failure to meet public expectations!


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