Witness intimidation: The fear and the reality

Witness intimidation: The fear and the reality

December 19th, 2013 by Todd South in Local Regional News

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Illustration by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

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Speak No Evil

Police and prosecutors have a hard time getting initial cooperation from witnesses to violent crimes. They have an even harder time getting those witnesses to testify in court and return again and again during the lengthy process that may lead to a conviction or plea.

But are the people in the community being threatened?

Community members say yes, but officials have mixed opinions.

"Well, when it works you never know it happened," said Bill Cox, Hamilton County district attorney. "If someone is coerced into not reporting a crime, then the crime isn't reported and the coercion to not report is not reported."

A nine-month investigation by the Times Free Press showed that less than half of the shooting investigations in Chattanooga result in an arrest, and police and prosecutors attribute much of the problem to lack of witness cooperation.

Many people who live in high-crime areas of the city who were interviewed for the "Speak No Evil" special report said they had been threatened to keep them from cooperating with police. But hardly anyone reported such threats to police.

Over three decades of policing, retired Chattanooga Police Assistant Chief Tim Carroll said he couldn't recall a case in which a witness was harmed after testifying.

Other investigators said the same.

The perception of intimidation exists; that's clear to police, prosecutors and judges.

"If you come forward you have to talk at a preliminary hearing, but then you don't come back to court for three years; somebody done killed you by then," said Towanda Sherrell, a Chattanooga resident who was shot at age 17.

Her son, James Sherrell, was killed in 2011. No charges have been brought against his killer.

In court, threatening a witness is called coercion.

Of the thousands of cases filed each year here, only a handful of such charges have been reported. Fewer actually made it through the system as coercion charges.

Since 2011, Hamilton County prosecutors have filed successful, nondomestic witness coercion charges five times.

Of those instances, one resulted in a conviction as part of a slew of charges in an aggravated robbery. The defendant called the victims shortly after stealing marijuana from them and said they shouldn't have called police over a drug deal but did not make physical threats against them.

The remaining four instances were still pending at the time of this report and involve:

• A woman accused of texting a threat to another woman who reported a black eye on the defendant's child to protective services.

• A mother who, in court, reportedly grabbed the arm of a juvenile boy who had testified against her teenage daughter moments before in a hearing.

• A man suspected of aggravated robbery who investigators said walked into the home of a witness who had picked him out of a photo lineup and asked repeatedly if she had identified him to police. He fled when she called 911.

• A woman whom a witness claimed called her and told her not to come to court.

Lila Statom worked as a prosecutor in Davidson and Hamilton counties for 24 years before becoming a General Sessions Court judge last year.

"A lot of times people don't cooperate out of fear, but their fear comes from just a lack of understanding the process," Statom said. "I think oftentimes they have it imagined, their imagination or what has been related to them is more frightening than the reality of the situation."

"I have had people show up in court that were so terrified that if they come into this building they would be killed," Statom said. "I have had people snuck into this building."

Victim/witness coordinators Katie Hartman and Emily Hale said they've had witnesses report seeing a suspect free on bond who were worried what would happen if they came to court.

That's the difficulty police face. Witnesses who may be being intimidated don't report the harassment out of fear that reporting it will only bring more threats.

"Call the police first; make a paper trail," Hartman said. Without a report the courts have no power to help.

Once threats or intimidation are reported, a police officer enters the charge, and the witness and the offender come to court, just as they did for the crime that started the whole process. Again, the witness must confront the defendant for him or her to be charged.

The standards don't change.

Hartman and Hale, who have worked a combined 12 years as coordinators and handled thousands of witnesses, can't recall actual harm coming to a witness.

But dirty looks at the gas station? A car parked near a witness' house late at night or driving by at odd hours? Those things don't rise to physical harm and wouldn't likely be reported but can create a sense of fear and intimidation, the pair said.

They sympathize with witnesses who live in neighborhoods with people they've seen commit crimes.

Chattanooga homicide detective Sgt. Bill Phillips sees witness cooperation problems in more than half of the cases. He understands the difficulties witnesses face but said that without cooperation, without information, he's stuck.

"I can't go into court and sign an affidavit and say an unidentified person told us this information but you're never going to see this person," Phillips said.

And without that affidavit, it's nearly impossible for a charge to hold and a dangerous shooter or gang member to be taken off the streets.

At the same time, there's not much police can do to protect witnesses, despite the best intentions.

Police can patrol more frequently in a witness' neighborhood. Coordinators can call more often to check on a witness. But really, they're alone.

Judges commonly order no contact between the defendant and the witness. That order carries a penalty of jail time if violated. But it has to be reported.

Statom knows that her life isn't the life of many witnesses who come before her. But she exhorts them to help themselves, help their community.

"I have had people tell me, 'You don't understand the reality of where I live and what it's like. To have bullets flying in a drive-by ..." she said. "Do they really think it's going to stop by them not coming?"

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP Staff writer Joan Garrett McClane contributed to this story.