Witness Protection Program Slips through Cracks

Friday, March 13, 2009 - 6:37pm

Authorities say it’s a piece of the puzzle when it comes to solving crimes, but it’s falling through the cracks because of a lack of funding. Our Lauren Unger takes a closer look at Louisiana’s witness protection program.

A home torched on Barksdale and Ralph Streets, authorities say it used to house two witnesses who testified in a recent murder case. Then there’s the trial of mass murderer Anthony Bell. In that case several people who testified had to be moved out of state after their lives were threatened. District Attorney Hillar Moore says it’s a problem that has become all too common. “Witnesses are being contacted and asked not to testify, asked that charges be dismissed, possibly receiving money to dismiss charges, threatened all the way to the point of possibly being killed.” Leading to fewer people willing to sit in the witnesses’ chair, which means more unsolved cases.

Victim Services Coordinator, Sgt. Carolyn Stapleton says, “I just got off the phone with a lady. Her 16-year-old son was shot, died in her arms. Her other son was there. A whole bunch of kids out there and nobody will talk.” Authorities say in part it’s because they get little to no funding from the state or federal government for witness protection. They’re hoping to change that with a new bill. Representative Bodi White says, “We want to get ahead of the curve and stop this before it gets a foothold in Louisiana.” Representative Walt Leger, III says, “We’re going to be basically following any stream of funds available. Whether it be private funds through foundation, federal funds through grants, or state funds.”

Lawmakers are hoping to only put a few hundred thousand dollars of state money into the program, then they’re hoping for federal money and they’re hoping the program itself will be a deterrent. “One we get this started, there’s going to be a buying, because then it’s going to pay for itself in the fact of saving human lives.” Putting criminals behind bars by getting regular folks to speak out.

The bill is going before the legislature this spring. The measure creates a panel of law enforcement experts who can help dole out the money responsibly.