Local News

Durham seeks witness-protection program

Posted March 13, 2009 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated March 13, 2009 6:31 p.m. EDT

— To combat gang intimidation of witnesses in criminal trials, Durham County is looking to establish what is believed to be the state's first witness-protection program.

The city and county officials who comprise Durham's Crime Cabinet on Friday threw their support behind a plan to spend up to $15,000 a year to put critical witnesses up in hotels before trials. The City Council and county Board of Commissioners still must approve the proposal.

"There are many cases where I have to dismiss (charges) because the witnesses are not going to come forward," Assistant Durham County District Attorney Stormy Ellis said.

Ellis, Durham's primary gang prosecutor, came up with the witness-protection idea.

"We cannot put a case together if we don't have a witness that's going to come forward," she said, adding that police sometimes are forced to arrest witnesses to guarantee they can be located and taken to court.

Dozens of cities with major gang problems, including Atlanta and Philadelphia, have witness-protection and relocation programs. Fourteen states have such programs, but North Carolina isn't one of them.

Thirteen of the state programs offer armed protection, if necessary, and the other one helps witnesses move and obtain a new identity. Ten of the programs also offer protection for the families of witnesses.

Ellis hasn't formally requested funding for the program, but Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, chairwoman of the Crime Cabinet, said she thinks the idea is worth the money.

"Witness intimidation has actually held up trials. It's a major issue," Reckhow said. "If they can protect witnesses, they have much more of a chance of bringing someone to trial and winning."

Compared with the cost of operating a witness-protection program, she said, the county spends about $97,000 a year to keep someone awaiting trial in the Durham County Jail.

Reckhow said the county could apply for a federal Justice Assistance Grant to offset the cost of the program. The city and the county expect to get about $746,000 in such grants through the federal stimulus package, she said.

"We feel that it's money well spent if we can expedite trials," she said.

"When you're looking at somebody who's going to rob someone else, would they rather have that person who's courageous enough to come forward and help prevent that?" Ellis said. "I think that's worth a lot. I think that's worth a lot."