THE MAGAZINE

Can I Get a Witness?

By Laura Spadanuta

A few years ago, Jose Sarabia was attacked by two members of California’s Barrio Elmwood Rifa (BER) gang. Sarabia was a former member of a rival gang that was no longer operating at the time of the attack. Sarabia was beaten so badly that his skull was shattered and his eye socket crushed. Jared Moses, criminal prosecutor in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, handled the case, and he expected Sarabia to testify against his attackers during the trial.

In the lead-up to the trial, one defendant’s family member, who was also a fellow gang member, threatened Sarabia, saying that something bad would happen if he showed up in court to testify. It scared Sarabia enough to keep him away from the trial, and Moses was forced to announce that he was unable to proceed. The case was dismissed.

Unfortunately for prosecutors and crime victims throughout the country, witnesses often back out in gang-related cases. Also common are witnesses who show up to trial and deny their prior statements about the crime.

Moses estimates that intimidation causes witnesses to recant their initial testimony in at least 60 to 70 percent of gang cases in his district. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy testified in Congress that intimidation occurs in 90 percent of her office’s homicides.

New Jersey State Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) has stated that sometimes “prosecutors will not pursue a criminal case unless there are multiple witnesses to the crime,” because intimidation is so damaging to cases. As a result, crimes are going unsolved and gang criminals are going free.

Intimidation can take many forms. In response, legislators, prosecutors, law enforcement, and even youth and community outreach groups are trying to find threat mitigation strategies to overcome the problem. 

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