Threats against witnesses are made in high-profile homicides and little-known domestic violence cases, delivered over jail phones, on social media and in old-fashioned letters. Witness intimidation permeates and sometimes corrupts the criminal justice system in Milwaukee County, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Prosecutors say the problem appears to be getting worse, even as the threats are more aggressively investigated and prosecuted. The courthouse itself is often the scene of brazen acts of intimidation. Witnesses routinely are “mean-mugged” by relatives of those on trial, who glares even as sheriff’s deputies stand guard over unruly courtroom galleries. Some secretly record victim testimony and post it online, despite orders from judges against it.
Prosecutors themselves face intimidation, hearing the “bitch” and other expletives muttered as they leave court. Last week, prosecutors said they had disrupted a plot to kill a murder witness. The same case revealed a failure to protect another witness. A 17-year-old girl who witnessed that same slaying was killed in July. No one has been charged in her death. In a year when homicides in Milwaukee have soared to a high not seen in this decade, there is an urgency to protect witnesses and victims from desperate defendants who already have shown a willingness to use deadly violence. “We have a violent crime problem and we have a horrible witness intimidation problem,” said Assistant District Attorney Peter Tempelis, head of the domestic violence unit. “I think it’s out of control, actually, because people see it works, or they think it does.”