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Witness to Murder: Out of Fear, Many Americans Choose to Keep Silent : Crime: Society seems to be losing its ability to care. But experts say the biggest deterrent to speaking out is the threat of getting hurt by getting involved.

June 13, 1993|JONATHAN YENKIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BOSTON — The woman had just left a restaurant and was driving down a narrow city street when the car ahead stopped. Three men jumped from the side of a building, dragged a passenger from the car and shot him.

Frozen in terror, the woman watched the men flee past her car, with guns still drawn. She assumes they were drug dealers, but she doesn't care to know. And she's not talking to police.

"If I come forward, they are just going to kill me," said the woman, who is connected with a prominent and influential figure in the Boston area. "Why would I lose my life over a drug matter?"

She's not alone in her dilemma.

America has become a nation of reluctant witnesses, many experts say, with too many people not so far removed from those New York neighbors of Kitty Genovese who shocked a nation in 1967 by failing to answer her screams as she was stalked and fatally stabbed in three separate attacks.

"It's becoming a much more anonymous society, a much more uncaring society," said Gilbert Geis, a retired professor of criminology at UC Irvine.

No one keeps any real scientific measure of civic isolation, but the anecdotal evidence is plentiful:

* Last year in Portland, Me., a man was beaten to death outside a tavern, and police say dozens of customers came outside to watch and didn't offer assistance until it was too late.

* In a community outside San Francisco, a group of students kept quiet when a friend killed his girlfriend and showed them the body. The 1981 case became the basis for the movie "River's Edge."

* Earlier this year in Chicago, only one motorist at a busy intersection got out of his car to help when a jogger slumped onto the roadway with stab wounds. The victim's lone rescuer was a cab driver whose own son was beaten to death by several men in front of bystanders who wouldn't intervene.

There have been some sexual assaults that occurred right in front of witnesses, such as the notorious 1983 pool table rape in New Bedford, Mass., and a case last year in San Diego, where police said a woman was raped while several other men watched.

William O'Malley, district attorney for Plymouth County, Mass., and other veterans of law enforcement say the biggest deterrent to speaking out is fear of getting hurt by getting involved.

Television shows, such as "America's Most Wanted" and "Prime Suspect" have produced tips on suspects. But that is often done through remote and relatively safe contact, often just a phone call telling authorities about the sighting of a suspect.

O'Malley and others say the tips are not as forthcoming when people might have to become personally involved.

In western Massachusetts, the ex-wife of Kenneth Mitchell knew for three years that he had murdered a college student in a random act of rage at a shopping mall.

Through intense publicity and the cries of anguish of the family and friends of the victim, she kept quiet, as did her current husband. Mitchell, who revealed the tale to her in a chance meeting, threatened to kill the couple if they spoke out. They didn't.

"I don't think it's because they didn't care," said State Police Trooper Kevin Murphy, the investigator who cracked the case just before Mitchell confessed the crime in a suicide note. "I think everybody cares. They just make a personal assessment of what the repercussions might be."

On the federal level, the U.S. Marshals Service has safeguarded about 13,000 witnesses and their families through a witness protection program begun in 1971. Witnesses must take a new identity and move far from their former homes, giving up old friends and sometimes even families.

"In that time, we've never lost anyone who stayed in the program," said Bill Licatovich, a spokesman for the Marshals Service in Washington, D.C. But, he added: "There have been those who dropped out and were killed."

The government has used the program to occasionally crack the organized crime code of silence, known as "omerta, " producing witnesses such as Sammy (The Bull) Gravano, an ex-mobster who helped convict John Gotti last year.

There is far less protection for those who might be called as witnesses in state courts.

"Law enforcement can give someone temporary protection. But that doesn't protect the person from gang retribution, for instance," said Dewey R. Stokes, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. "If a local officer wants to get someone into a program, they have to find a federal violation. It's a damn shame."

In Los Angeles, so many witnesses have been frightened out of testifying against street gangs--or killed for doing so--that the county district attorney's office in the 1980s started a witness protection program.

The program is limited in scope, providing witnesses only with enough money to move to another part of the city and pay a security deposit. But officials say the program helps witnesses threatened by street gangs that seldom travel far outside their own turf.

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