Federal firearms agent visited five cities to find six witnesses for a trial of an accused New Orleans drug trafficker, says USA Today. A hidden cost of rebuilding the New Orleans justice system involves the expensive and tedious search for dozens of crime witnesses. Like half of the city’s pre-Katrina population, they are scattered across Louisiana and much of the nation. Most of the witnesses have no intention of returning, local police and prosecutors say. In many cases, a fear of retribution from suspects has made witnesses reluctant to make their whereabouts known.
Since last year, criminal charges against more than 3,000 felony suspects have been dropped because of storm-related problems, including damaged evidence and unavailable witnesses. Congress is considering legislation to offer local governments, including New Orleans, federal money and agents to help find witnesses for ongoing cases. “This is an extremely urgent situation,” says Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who cited repeated episodes of witness intimidation in his Baltimore district. “If you don’t have witnesses, the chances of success (in court) decline substantially,” he says. Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said that only one of the 160 homicides in New Orleans last year resulted in a conviction. A district attorney’s spokesman said that actually four murder trials were conducted last year, resulting in three convictions.