Philadelphia, June 2, 2010: District Attorney Seth Williams urged the Philadelphia City Council today to take action on a set of proposals that would ensure witnesses in criminal cases are better protected. Witness intimidation is widespread problem in Philadelphia, and impacts nearly every homicide case that comes through the District Attorney’s Office.
“The “don’t snitch” culture is a reality,” Mr. Williams told City Council on Wednesday. “It is not going away; in fact it is getting worse. To do nothing is to endanger the safety of our city.”
Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. is spearheading the effort to combat witness intimidation with the ultimate goal of providing a safer environment for witnesses, in order to better prosecute criminals.
“A ‘Dodge City-style’ of justice has begun to permeate our society,” Jones said.
The Councilman is sponsoring measures to amend the Home Rule Charter which will create a civil penalty of up to $2000 for those convicted in Philadelphia of witness intimidation. Under the plan, that money would be placed into a separate fund that would support relocation efforts for victims of witness intimidation in the city. The fund would only be supplied by the fines imposed for witness intimidation; it would not contain any taxpayer money. Jones Jr. believes implementing this plan is important to help restore a sense of justice in the community. He also sees it as a first step in the spirit of cooperation between the City Council and the District Attorney’s Office.
“If we do not attack this problem aggressively and proactively, Philadelphia will become less safe; more Philadelphians will be scared to come forward; murderers and straw purchasers and other violent criminals will escape prosecution,” said the District Attorney.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s Victim/Witness Services Unit serves between 50-60 families a year. It provides direct assistance from the time of arrest through the disposition of a case and after as needed. Its goal is to keep victims and witnesses well informed and treated with compassion and respect, so they are not victimized again when they come to court. While it is largely funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there is no additional funding for help at the state level which is why any measure by the City Council will be a tremendous help. The D.A.’s Assistant Director of Victim Services, Leland Kent, says it will greatly improve efforts to keep victims and the community safe.
“Witness intimidation,” he said, “threatens to undermine the integrity of the justice system. Criminals, he added, essentially believe if there is no witness there is no case.
Antonia Whitt, the victim of a brutal sexual assault in North Philadelphia in April 2007, turned to Victims Services for help through the trial of her attacker. Whitt, members of her family and friends received numerous phone calls threatening their lives unless she dropped charges.
“My first thought was to run,” she told City Council.” But I knew I needed to do the right thing and press charges and Victims Services was very supportive.” Victims Services provided Whitt protective custody, funds for relocation, food and transportation, as well as counseling with Women Organized Against Rape (W.O.A.R.)
“I think this is a good start to help more witnesses come forward,” Williams said.
City Council is expected to vote on the issue by the middle of June.