Witness protection slighted as funding falls

Published: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 11:32 p.m.

MILWAUKEE - Maurice Pulley agreed last fall to testify against the thug accused of shooting him in the face in an argument over a parking spot. But before Pulley ever took the stand, two gunmen ran up to him and killed him in his mother's driveway.

Pulley's family is blaming the dismantling of Milwaukee's witness-protection program 4 1/2 years ago.

"My son is laying there like an animal. Like a deer,'' said the young man's father, Maurice Pulley Sr.

"He stuck up for right and justice. When things start to happen, you need to act to get people safe. It's unconscionable. There should be no price too great to pay for somebody's protection.''

Around the country, prosecutors say tight budgets are hamstringing their ability to keep witnesses safe at a time when intimidation on the streets appears to be surging, particularly in gang cases.

"The most basic thing we should be able to do is assure them they'll be safe while their case is proceeding,'' Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm said. "We can't guarantee your safety.''

Florida's witness protection efforts took a hit after a budget shortfall forced lawmakers in 2007 to reduce $500,000 originally appropriated for the program to $100,000.

Atlanta prosecutors get no state help for witness protection, instead scraping by with money from forfeitures, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said.

The money is so inadequate that he plea-bargains some cases because he can't afford to protect witnesses in long trials, he said.

"It's a very serious problem,'' Howard said. "And that's why I think it's something we should get some assistance for from the state. Here in the county our budgets are shrinking, as with everybody.''

In Chicago, the Cook County State's Attorney's office got some state dollars in 2003 and 2004 for witness relocation and protection but since then has been running its program out of its own budget. Since 2003 the office has spent nearly $520,000 to relocate 199 witnesses.

In Philadelphia, spending by the district attorney's office on relocating witnesses increased from $413,290 in 2004 to $1 million in 2007. Nevertheless, District Attorney Lynne Abraham said that is not enough.

Abraham said her office can afford only to move a limited number of people from place to place until they can testify. She would like more money to help cover witnesses' living expenses and perhaps provide them with job training.

"When we put you someplace else, you're cut off from family, friends, jobs. How are you going to make money?'' she asked.

Prosecutors say witness intimidation is surging. "Stop Snitching'' T-shirts have been sold in cities around the country.

In 2004, NBA star Carmelo Anthony appeared in an underground Baltimore DVD that warned people they could be killed if they cooperated with police. A Web site titled "Who's a Rat?'' offers a national database of informants.

Many jurisdictions do not keep figures on cases dismissed because of intimidation or the number of witnesses hurt or killed. But prosecutors tell stories of how witness intimidation has damaged cases.

In Philadelphia, where the number of cases that involved witness relocation increased from 35 in 2004 to 84 last year, one of the most egregious examples came in 2006, when eight witnesses recanted testimony about who shot Faheem Thomas-Childs, a 10-year-old boy who walked into gang crossfire in front of dozens of people.

Levels of local protection vary. Some metropolitan areas, such as New York City, Miami and Chicago, have full-fledged programs or provide short-term relocation and protection on an informal, case-by-case basis. The money typically comes from prosecutors' budgets or state reimbursements.

The U.S. Marshals Service runs an elaborate witness protection program in which people are permanently relocated and given brand-new identities, but it is generally reserved for federal witnesses in major cases.

Milwaukee, a city of about 600,000, averaged around 100 homicides and more than 6,500 violent crimes annually between 2002 and 2006. In the four years since the witness protection unit ended, Chisholm's office on average charged someone with intimidating a witness every six days.

"Something's got to be done,'' Chisholm said. "You say, In 15 minutes I'm going to call you to the stand' and they'll just look at you and say, 'I'm not doing it.'''

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