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Witness Protection Works

In its first three years, California's program helped produce almost 500 convictions and a cumulative 6,000 years of prison time.

July 15, 2002

Kathryn Dawson never opened the door of her Compton home to strangers. But the retired schoolteacher and widowed mother of six had known Joe Patrick Gaines since he was 8, before he joined a gang and was put on probation for carrying a gun. When Gaines, then 17 years old, came calling in July 2001, Dawson welcomed this longtime family friend. She probably would have freely given him the $20 he stole after shooting her, execution-style.

Compton Superior Court Judge Jack W. Morgan last week sentenced Gaines to life in prison without parole. County sheriff's deputies and prosecutors deserve credit not just for delivering justice--the only solace in so bitter a case--but for doing so against the odds that come with gang crimes.

Gangbangers in Los Angeles have killed, on average, one person a day so far this year, accounting for more than half the city's 341 homicides. Police officials estimate that arrests are made in only about 30% of gang- related cases. When the law of the street is "You snitch, you die," cops get scant cooperation. Witnesses who do talk often change their stories by the time they get to court.

Consider a Times story that ran the same day as one on Gaines' sentencing. A witness was stabbed seven times the day before he was to testify against a gang member. The witness survived, and his testimony helped win a murder conviction. But when it comes to intimidation, perception is everything. If gang members injure or kill a witness in even one case, it has a chilling effect on others.

For years, police and prosecutors responded as best they could; one LAPD division even bought its own moving van to help witnesses relocate. In 1998 the California Legislature established a witness protection program to help local departments. Though not as elaborate as the federal witness protection program--known for spiriting away ex-mobsters to new lives with new identities--the state program picks up the tab for a motel stay or moving expenses and a few months' rent.

Last year, the program allocated just over $2 million to relocate more than 1,000 witnesses and family members, an average of $2,000 a person. About three-quarters of the cases requiring protection involved gangs. In its first three years, the program helped produce almost 500 convictions and a cumulative 6,000 years of prison time. These cases could not have gone to trial without witnesses, prosecutors say, and the witnesses involved would not have agreed to testify without protection.

When a young man murders a kind and supportive elder, it's easy to lose hope in mentoring, job training and other programs meant to steer vulnerable kids away from the gang life and the violence it so often triggers. But children who live in gang-ridden neighborhoods need societal lifelines. Residents of such neighborhoods need police and prosecutors to keep them safe from the brutes who commit unimaginable atrocities and tempt others to do likewise. Tools like the witness protection program help get the job done.

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