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"Stop Snitching" Campaign Doing It's Job

Does Not Help Reduce Crime And Misery

With Witnesses at Risk, Murder Suspects Go Free

When Yusef Johnson, a 15-year-old honors student, was killed outside an apartment complex here so gang-infested it is known as Crazyville, a witness came forward within days and told the police she knew the man she had seen fire the fatal shots.

In another case three months later, in November 2005, officers found two people who identified a street gang leader as the man they saw kill a marijuana dealer named Valterez Coley during a dispute over a woman.

And when Isaiah Stewart, a 17-year-old wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet from a recent brush with the law, was gunned down that December, another Newark teenager sketched a diagram of the crime scene, correctly identified the murder weapon and named a former classmate as the person he had watched commit the crime.

They seem like slam-dunk cases, but none of the three suspects have been arrested. It is not that detectives are unsure of their identity or cannot find them. Rather, it is because so many recent cases here have been scuttled when witnesses were scared silent that the Essex County prosecutor has established an unwritten rule discouraging pursuit of cases that rely on a single witness, and those in which witness statements are not extensively corroborated by forensic evidence.

The 3 are among at least 14 recent murders in Newark in which witnesses have clearly identified the killers but no charges have been filed, infuriating local police commanders and victims’ relatives.

In 8 of the 14 cases, according to court documents and police reports, there was more than one witness; in two of them, off-duty police officers were among those identifying the suspects. But in a DNA era, these are cases with little or no physical evidence, and they often involve witnesses whose credibility could be compromised by criminal history or drug problems, or both.

“No one wants to solve these cases and lock up the killers in these cases more than we do,? the county prosecutor, Paula T. Dow, said in a recent interview. “But we have to weigh the evidence and move forward only if we believe that the witnesses are credible and that they’ll be there to testify at trial.?

The tension between the police and prosecutors here over the evolving standards of evidence required to authorize arrest warrants is a stark example of the profound effect witness intimidation is having on the criminal justice system in New Jersey and across the country.

Surveys conducted by the National Youth Gang Center, which is financed by the federal Department of Justice, have found that 88 percent of urban prosecutors describe witness intimidation as a serious problem.

In both Baltimore and Boston, where “stop snitching? campaigns by rap artists and gang leaders have urged city residents not to cooperate with the authorities, prosecutors estimate that witnesses face some sort of intimidation in 80 percent of all homicide cases.

In Essex County, prosecutors report that witnesses in two-thirds of their homicides receive overt threats not to testify, with defendants and their supporters sometimes canvassing witnesses’ neighborhoods wearing T-shirts printed with the witnesses’ photographs or distributing copies of their statements to the police.

Dozens of New Jersey murder cases have been undone over the past five years after witnesses were killed, disappeared before trial or changed their stories.

Look, a lot of people don't like the police - unless of course you need them, then they can't show up fast enough. So the grassroots support for the "Stop Snitching" campaign is just wrongheaded in so many ways.

On the other hand, the witness protection programs at the local level is just deplorable, so unless these states like having criminals run free, they should start being serious about protecting those that will help make the case against the predators.