ROMNEY SIGNS BILL TO CRACK DOWN ON GANG VIOLENCE
Law adds new crimes, stiffens penalties to protect witnesses in gang crimes
Governor Mitt Romney today took aim at gang violence and witness intimidation by signing into law a measure that gives prosecutors the tools they need to protect witnesses. Elected officials, religious and community leaders and law enforcement officials participated in the bipartisan signing ceremony in Dorchester.
"Our criminal justice and public safety professionals now have a real tool to protect those who join with us to take a stand against crime and violence in our communities," Romney said during the ceremony at St. Peter's School, which specializes in youth programs that have shown great success in keeping students out of gangs and connecting them to their community. "Witnesses who have the courage to come forward and testify should not have to live in fear for cooperating with prosecutors to keep their communities safe."
The new law, based on legislation filed last year by Governor Romney and Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, is a major re-write and expansion of what constitutes witness intimidation and establishes a witness protection program in the state for the first time.
"With new laws on the books, we can help protect witnesses who live in fear and allow them to come forward and participate in the criminal justice system," said Lieutenant Governor Healey. "Empowering witnesses will reduce the backlog of unsolved gang-related homicides that threatens the safety of our citizens."
Under the new legislation, prosecutors will be able to seek punishment for those who attempt to interfere with cases by intimidating potential witnesses. Anyone who threatens or injures a witness will face up to 10 years in state prison and up to a $5,000 fine.
New protection services are now available for those testifying in gang-related cases. Prosecutors will have the authority to provide armed protection during or after a criminal proceeding, as well as transfer witnesses to safe housing facilities and provide public school relocations for children.
"Concerned citizens have worked so hard to put an end to gang violence in the City of New Bedford and I am so happy to see this day arrive," said Phyllis Lopes, whose grandson Cecil was murdered by gang members on Halloween night in 2004. "We will never stop working together to help make our streets and communities safe and we hope this new law will restore confidence in our neighborhoods."
The law also cracks down on gang members who circulate grand jury testimony with the intent to impede criminal proceedings or deter witnesses from testifying. The use of grand jury transcripts or minutes of testimony to carry out that purpose is now a crime punishable by up to five years in prison or up to a $5,000 fine.
"As a community leader, I am pleased to see this bill signed by our governor. It directly helps law enforcement, but also benefits those of us on the frontlines of moving our communities away from the culture of violence and the silence that feeds it," said Reverend Jeffrey L. Brown, pastor of the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge and Co-Founder of the Boston Ten Point Coalition. "Our neighborhoods are physically, psychologically and spiritually torn apart as young people kill each other, and this law will encourage those who see shootings to report them so that those who perpetrate violence will be brought to justice."
The new witness protection program, funded by a $1.5 million appropriation, will be overseen by a Witness Protection Board comprised of the Secretary of Public Safety, the Attorney General, the Auditor, a chief of police and a District Attorney.
"At its heart, our justice system relies on the courage of citizens who step forward and testify. Beginning today, these witnesses can speak knowing that they are not alone; that law enforcement can provide basic protections and that there are tools available to punish those who intimidate to undermine justice," said Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley. "This smart and balanced new law is an accomplishment that the Romney-Healey administration, the Legislature, District Attorneys, mayors, police chiefs, and community and faith-based leaders should take great pride in. It is an enormous step forward for the safety of our neighborhoods and the confidence of citizens to access our criminal justice system."
The legislation also creates harsher punishments for unlawful possession of a firearm and a new criminal penalty to discourage the trafficking of "community" or "block" guns, which are shared by gang members who leave them unattended in public for use by other members.
"Today we loosen the grip that gang violence has had on our communities," said Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, a sponsor of the bill and Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. "With bipartisan support we created a statewide witness protection program and prevention programs for youth that get tough on gang violence and provide real tools for police and prosecutors to go after criminals."
The law Romney signed also makes it easier to prove perjury by uncooperative witnesses in violent crime cases. The perjury law changes allow for the prosecution of witnesses who identify gang members and other criminals to prosecutors and police, but then recant at trial.