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D.C. Homicide Investigations Hampered by Witnesses' Fears


August 1994

In testimony before a House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice, Washington, D.C. police Captain Michael Johnson said that police only make arrests in half the city's slayings because witnesses are afraid to talk (Ruben Castaneda, "Witnesses Need More Protection Hill Panel Told," Washington Post, August 5, 1994, D1).

The House panel was conducting an investigation into the growing problem of witness intimidation. "The fear of witnesses to cooperate in the prosecution of murders prevents our department from closing probably 30 to 35 percent more cases," said Johnson, who is in charge of a police unit that provides protection for witnesses.

Johnson said that witnesses are not directly threatened in most homicide cases, but there have been enough witness slayings and threats to create a climate of fear in D.C.

Johnson referred to a recent case involving the drug gang First Street Crew, in which eight witnesses, only one of whom had agreed to help police, were fatally shot.

Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Ramsey Johnson, who heads the D.C. Superior Court division of the U.S. Attorney's Office, agreed with Johnson. "I am convinced that the low arrest rate for homicide in the District is, in large measure, due to fear on the part of witnesses."

Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the subcommittee, said that Congress should seriously consider making witness intimidation a felony in Federal cases. [Of course witness tampering and intimidation is a federal crime, strengthened in 1982, 1986 and 1988 (18 USC 1512 and 1513). And the death penalty can now be imposed for killing a witness, as amended by this summer's crime bill, P.L. 103-322, sections 60017 and 60018. -- Editor]

A Justice Department official announced that additional funds will soon be made available to law enforcement in the District of Columbia as part of a pilot program to allow prosecutors to protect witnesses more quickly. Currently it can take several months to get witnesses into federal witness protection and relocation programs. Also, many witnesses do not want to change their names and permanently relocate, as is required by the program.

In the past several years, witness intimidation and witness killings have become more frequent in the District and in parts of Prince George's County. Until now, officials were reluctant to openly discuss the problem out of fear that it would encourage criminals to commit this type of activity. Recently, law enforcement officials have publicly confronted the problem in order to procure more federal funding for witness protection and to encourage the passage of tougher laws.

Captain Johnson said that all the witnesses in the First Street Crew case who cooperated with prosecutors and received protection were unharmed. Johnson's unit has provided protection for 16 witnesses and their families, none of whom have been harmed.