Anti-violence advocates say convictions for gun crimes won’t rise without helping witnesses

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Philadelphia police car

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

Melany Nelson is still frustrated by what happened last fall.

During a preliminary hearing in October, one of her clients at Northwest Victim Services testified against the man accused of shooting him more than seven times. As he recounted the events that landed him in the hospital, Nelson said court staff caught the suspect’s girlfriend trying to take a photo of him with her cell phone.

The woman was also using her phone to record the man’s testimony, said Nelson, executive director of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit. Citing safety concerns, she declined to provide more details about the incident — what she considers a brazen example of witness intimidation.

“This gentleman is afraid for his life,” said Nelson. “He doesn’t feel safe living where he’s living.”

The girlfriend’s phone was immediately confiscated. She’s now banned from the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, but she wasn’t arrested or charged with a crime. She left the courthouse a free woman.

While the episode may seem extreme, it’s not uncommon in Philadelphia. It also illustrates why so many witnesses in gun-related cases don’t show up to court, even though it’s illegal to ignore a subpoena — it can earn you a contempt-of-court charge. Witnesses fear members of neighborhood street gangs or groups will retaliate against them if they do go to court.

It’s not a new issue. But anti-violence advocates like Nelson say tackling it needs to be a priority if the city ever hopes to raise its decidedly low conviction rates in these cases, which include illegal gun possession charges and offenses related to nonfatal shootings. Gun violence spiked dramatically last year, making 2020 one of the most violent on record.

“Until they can ensure that victims are safe when they testify, I don’t think their numbers will increase,” said Nelson.

Activist Isaac Gardner leads a march against gun violence at City Hall on July 20, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Those who speak up can be shot, killed”

The fear that stops witnesses from appearing in court is deeply rooted in the city’s pervasive no-snitch culture, said Isaac Gardner, who leads Unsolved Murders in Philly, a group that provides counseling to families who have lost loved ones to gun violence, among other services.

In neighborhoods home to street gangs and groups, members of those gangs and groups understand they are not supposed to testify in court, especially in gun-related cases, he said. Those who choose to ignore the unwritten rule can expect something negative to happen to them, said Gardner.

“Those who do speak up can be shot, killed, have their house set on fire. Somebody might set your car on fire, give you a little warning,” he said.

Residents who are not active in the street gangs are also strongly — strongly — discouraged from taking the stand. This means victims of gun violence and their families who decide to testify face potentially deadly consequences.

In some instances, according to Gardner, a relative who is part of a street gang or group may encourage a fellow family member who was shot to remain silent.

“They’re encouraging them not to speak up because they’re in the street and they don’t want to have that stigma on their family name,” said Gardner. “It’s sad to say, but that’s what happens sometimes.”

Colwin Williams works with the nonprofit Cure Violence. As a street supervisor, he does outreach in high-crime police districts to prevent gun violence from erupting. Williams said no-snitch culture persists because of a simple fact: People don’t want to be killed.

When forced to choose between potentially being arrested for ignoring a subpoena or potentially being killed for testifying — the choice is easy, said Williams.

Colwin Williams with Cure Violence tells Simpson Street residents that officials are putting a bandaid on the problem and not dealing with real issues surrounding gun violence. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“The first law of nature is self-preservation,” he said.

Advocates say that, paired with what advocates view as a lack of resources for witness relocation, make it no surprise that city prosecutors often struggle to secure convictions in gun-related cases.

Staffers with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office recently looked at about 400 such cases as part of a forthcoming study. In roughly half of the cases there was no conviction because a witness didn’t show up to court.

No easy solutions to “make the situation better”

Funding to relocate witnesses to safer places is distributed by the state.

Victims can apply for up to $1,000 through the state’s Victims Compensation Assistance Program, which also provides residents with money for funeral costs, as well counseling and child care.

Under the program, funding for relocation is only distributed after the move as a means of reimbursing the resident. The costs of moving, including first and last month’s rent, constitute a substantial financial burden for many. It’s an especially challenging requirement in Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the country.

“A lot of people don’t have money laying around to move,” said Nelson. “That’s heartbreaking for me.”

The state also offers funding for witness relocation through the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. The $1.2 million program, part of the state budget, requires local law enforcement or the relevant district attorney’s office to essentially apply for funding on behalf of a witness.

If the witness qualifies, the AG’s office disburses the money, which is sent directly to the landlord or the hotel if the relocation is temporary. The amount of money depends on the case.

The county is responsible for everything else.

Nelson said victims must be able to show there are real, ongoing threats of violence, either in person, over the phone, or through social media. The fear of retaliation must be more than perception.

Typically, Philadelphia accounts for about half of the state’s referrals each year, according to the attorney general’s office. Across the state, a total of 89 witness relocation cases were opened in 2019. Through November of last year, there were 55.

In Philadelphia, the district attorney’s office has the option of using its own funding to help offset relocation costs if the Attorney General’s Office rejects a referral.

District Attorney Larry Krasner declined to discuss his office’s role in relocating witnesses. The city’s top prosecutor said he is actively searching for ways to increase funding for witness relocation, but he did not provide any details.

“Part of our job is not to give any hints about what we’re doing or how we’re doing it to people who might be a threat,” Krasner told WHYY.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner told residents on Simpson Street to contact his office if they were in need of any resources after the shooting of 7 year-old Zamar Jones. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The district attorney’s office and the Philadelphia Police Department recently launched a new initiative designed to secure more convictions for people arrested for gun-related crimes.

A working group will closely examine weekly arrests for nonfatal shootings and illegal gun possessions. The goal is to proactively identify issues that could make those cases harder to win in court. For example, issues that could lead a judge not to accept certain evidence at trial.

Krasner said the joint effort, launched in early December, may include ways to get more witnesses to testify, including rides to court and “providing a greater sense of safety and security.”

He acknowledged it won’t be easy.

“All the stakeholders have to do the best job they can to make that situation better,” he said.

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