A silence plagues the families of many murder victims, says the Chicago Tribune. The silence sends police and prosecutors in maddening circles. It’s the sound of nobody talking. Whether they fear gangs that intimidate witnesses or comply with a street culture that despises a rat, those who witness a homicide or learn something about it rarely come forward willingly. A lack of witnesses contributed to the police’s failure to solve more than half of last year’s murders. People kill with little fear of getting caught, one reason Chicago led the nation in murders last year.
“What happens is they become more brazen,” said Brian Sexton, deputy supervisor of the state’s attorney’s gang prosecutions unit. “We’ve had murders that have happened in the middle of the day, where the shooter’s confident because they know nobody will come forward. And if they do, they know they’ll be able to intimidate them.”
Witnesses who do come forward, usually just after a homicide when emotions are running high, often recant their testimony by the time a case goes to trial. Most back out because they fear for their lives, regardless of whether gangs were involved in the killing. “A lot of real good killers are out there and are getting away with it because nobody will say anything,” said Michael Smith, head of the gang prosecutions unit.
Police and prosecutors say street gangs are the primary source of witness intimidation, often threatening not just the person who saw the crime, but that person’s family as well. Sgt. Jim Jones of the police violent crimes division said fear of retribution is so prevalent that direct threats to eyewitnesses aren’t always necessary–silence, for many, is an automatic response. “Many adults out there were raised this way, learning not to make any communication with the police unless it’s going to directly benefit them,” Jones said. “It’s not that a gang has to necessarily go to them and say, `Don’t say anything.’ It’s just a given.”
Once someone is charged with a homicide, gangs have found ways to access witness lists and overcome investigators’ best efforts to shield those who have come forward. Prosecutor Sexton recalls a case in which a defendant tracked down a witness, drove the witness to his defense attorney’s office. and had the witness write and sign a recantation.
“It’s all threats, it’s all violations,” Sexton said. “I’m almost at the point now where I’m surprised if a witness doesn’t flip.” Even defense attorneys say Chicago’s dismal clearance rate on homicides can be blamed largely on a lack of community cooperation and witness recantations. They note that some witnesses, faced with the pressure of a police interview, give inaccurate testimony that can lead to wrongful convictions.