Witness intimidation and retaliation in Philadelphia is defying community outrage and official efforts to break a “street code of silence,” reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. At least 11 local people in the last decade have been killed or targeted because of their testimony. Prosecutors believe countless others are threatened, directly and indirectly, often in homicide and gang cases. Prosecutor Yvonne Ruiz estimated that one-third of her homicide cases involved intimidation, leading witnesses to disappear or recant on the stand. “They are striking at the center of the very central nervous system of our justice system,” said Richard Carroll, a former prosecutor.
Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson said intimidation of witnesses compounded “one of the biggest problems we have” – people changing their story, or disappearing entirely. This year, nobody among a half-dozen eyewitnesses has agreed to testify about the February shooting death of Faheem Thomas-Childs,10, outside a school in Swampoodle, police say. The neighborhood has had the fastest growth in intimidation cases filed since 1997. The problem is such that police and District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham’s office are reluctant to discuss it in detail publicly, for fear that mere acknowledgment will scare away more witnesses. Prosecutors file intimidation or retaliation charges in about 400 cases each year. The district attorney secretly relocates about 40 witnesses a year. Abraham’s decade-old Witness Relocation Program is modest, relying on informal contacts with agencies and finite grants, soon to expire.