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Rewards Fail to Lure Witnesses

In gang-related L.A. homicide cases, fear of retaliation keeps those in the know silent. The standard $25,000 offer isn't enough, critics say.

August 25, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

In the past 12 months, at least $3 million worth of rewards in homicide cases in Los Angeles has gone unclaimed, nearly the total amount offered.

The inability of a $25,000 reward to overcome the fear of retaliation is disturbing evidence of the dimensions of Los Angeles' gang problem, police say.

Out of at least 120 such awards offered in the past year, only two -- for a total of $50,000 -- have been paid. In scores of other cases, witnesses with useful information chose to remain silent rather than take cash.

Most of the unsolved homicides are street crimes that are seldom mysteries. The very nature of the crimes usually guarantees that there will be witnesses. Most of these shootings are committed in public, and part of the point is to enhance the reputations of the killers. People commonly watch as the shootings go down, then hear them bragging about them afterward.

But getting such witnesses to face defendants in court remains among the most difficult challenges in law enforcement. Living among gang members, or belonging to gangs themselves, the most likely homicide witnesses in Los Angeles typically fear being labeled snitches or turncoats. Not trusting that the system will protect them, they take the view that testifying could make them the next target, and that no reward is worth the risk.

"Twenty-five thousand is not enough for a person's life," said Sylvia Washington, the mother of one of the dozens of South Los Angeles murder victims so far this year. "You need enough for a person to get out of there and start a new life -- to get away to another state where they don't have to look behind their backs."

Officials with the Los Angeles city clerk's office estimated that only about eight rewards have been paid out in the last three years, out of hundreds offered and renewed. Some date to the 1970s. There are a number of restrictions on the rewards. In particular, information must lead not just to arrest, but also to conviction.

The long-standing $25,000 payout per case is provided by the city.

Among longtime detectives, payouts are so rare as to be practically folklore. Some detectives said they view reward offers as a kind of Hail Mary pass -- a last resort when all other options have been exhausted, or simply a means of satisfying a grieving family that everything possible is being done.

Det. Bill Smith of the LAPD's Southeast Division is one of the few Los Angeles Police Department investigators who has had any success with rewards. He has paid out two over the years. In both cases, he said, the money was crucial to obtaining convictions.

The rewards helped the witnesses make permanent moves to safer places, supplementing much smaller witness relocation funds, and helped detectives show good faith to people who stayed the course through lengthy and inconvenient court procedures, he said.

But most of the time, people appear dubious that the money will really come through, Smith said.

Smith cited a recent case of a murder in the Nickerson Gardens housing project. Dozens of people have called anonymously to tell Smith who did it.

The witnesses, moreover, are low-income residents who might need the cash. But even so, no one has spoken out. The fear of facing gang members in court makes the choice clear: "They say they want nothing to do with the money," Smith said.

Law enforcement agents have suggested various ways to make the program more effective. The current 60-day expiration period should be extended, some said, and offers and payouts better publicized, they said.

Rewards also could be made standard for all homicides, Smith said. That would ensure that they are offered equitably and are available right away instead of weeks later, when the investigation is growing cold, as is often the case now, Smith said. It also would cut down on paperwork for detectives.

Chief Earl Paysinger, head of the LAPD's South Bureau, which has the highest number of unsolved homicides over the past decade, argued that rewards should be increased to as much as $100,000.

A few detectives also proposed that payouts be tied only to arrest, not to conviction. But others said they feared this would lead to abuse or would damage witnesses' credibility.

Some change is needed, said Washington, the murder victim's mother. Her son, Christopher Jacobs, was killed last month at age 16 in daylight in front of numerous witnesses.

The case is typical of gang murders. Jacobs, 5 feet 10 with light brown eyes and long braids, attended California Charter Academy. Not a gang member, he was a good student who recently had turned around poor grades, his mother said.

About 6:40 p.m. the evening of July 6, Christopher was walking near his home west of the Harbor Freeway, south of Vernon Avenue, when a gray compact car drove up with four men inside. A man got out and started shooting.

There are conflicting accounts, but police say there are many people who saw the killing, or heard about what happened.

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