Members of Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s top legal, advocacy, and organizational staff yesterday led prosecutors on a training in use of the state’s Witness Protection Fund to ensure that they have the tools necessary to keep victims, witnesses, and their loved ones safe.
Deputy Chief of Staff Catherine Rodriguez, Chief Trial Counsel John Pappas, and Katherine Moran, Director of the DA’s Victim-Witness Assistance Program, hosted about half of Conley’s Superior Court trial lawyers and will host the second half later this month. Witness Protection Program Nuts & Bolts is mandatory for Superior Court prosecutors – those assigned to the Homicide Unit, Gang Unit, Major Felony Bureau, and other trial teams handling serious violent crime. Dozens of district and municipal court prosecutors who volunteered for the training will receive it next month.
“Suffolk County routinely leads the Commonwealth in witness protection petitions and actual funds spent on safety measures,” Conley said. “We want every Suffolk prosecutor trained to use it efficiently, effectively, and ethically. And we want people to know that they can feel safe coming to us if they have information that can solve a crime.”
Established in 2006 after extensive lobbying by Conley and his office, the Witness Protection Fund may pay for relocation services that range from emergency hotel rooms to first month, last month, and security deposit payments on new apartments. It may also pay for moving expenses, protective services, transportation, and even basic living items such as groceries and toiletries. Unlike the federal witness protection program, Massachusetts’ fund cannot provide a new identity – but it routinely moves potential witnesses and their loved ones out of potential danger. Between 2012 and 2014, the program protected more than 130 witnesses and more than 225 of their parents, spouses, siblings, and children.
By statute, the funds may only be applied toward the protection of a “person who is participating in a criminal investigation … or such person’s relatives, guardians, friends or associates who are reasonably endangered by such person’s participation in the criminal investigation or proceeding.” The Witness Protection Fund is administered by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. Petitions are decided by the state’s Witness Protection Board.
On average, about 75% of Suffolk County’s witness protection petitions relate to crimes of gun violence and more petitions are filed in cases of gang violence than all others combined. Prosecutors say crimes of gun violence leave so little in the way of forensic evidence compared to other offenses that witness testimony is often the linchpin to solving a shooting or homicide that might otherwise go unsolved.
As the EOPSS Research and Policy Analysis Division wrote in 2010, “The Witness Protection Program has proven to be a critical tool to keep witnesses safe and to secure testimony, without which an indictment or conviction might otherwise be impossible.”
“Witness protection doesn’t just solve crimes,” Conley said. “It saves lives. More cooperating witnesses mean fewer violent offenders on the street to put others at risk. Almost every violent crime is one witness away from being solved, but we can’t expect those witnesses to step up if we don’t step up for them. Trainings like this one help us meet our promise not to leave witnesses alone with their fear.”