Today, at the Onondaga County Courthouse in downtown Syracuse, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer pushed legislation that can help Syracuse law enforcement protect key witnesses who come forward with information or testify during a trial. The State Witness Protection Act also increases criminal penalties on those, like gangs, that seek to intimidate witnesses. The Schumer-backed legislation comes on the heels of numerous recent violent crimes in Syracuse that produced few witnesses, including a downtown stabbing that happened in front of a crowd of onlookers just weeks ago. Two other crimes, a June 10th shooting on Mariposa Street that killed a 21 year old still lack witnesses or leads, and a June 17th shooting on Putnam Street that left a young man paralyzed is also lacking witnesses willing to come forward. Schumer's legislation contains specific provisions that would make witness intimidation a federal crime, and toughen sentences for those who attempt to intimidate a witness, or prevent them from going to police with important information that could help in cracking a case or chasing a lead. Schumer's plan would increase the potential maximum penalty to 30 years in prison in cases of attempted murder or physical violence against a witness, and increase the potential maximum sentence to 20 years in jail for other types of witness intimidation, like obstruction of justice. Schumer will call for the swift passage of the legislation in light of the City's recent lack of leads in serious crimes and to ensure that Syracuse law enforcement can retain the upper hand over gangs and other criminals who may be working hard on the street to keep witnesses silent.
"Innocent bystanders who witness violent crimes should no longer live in fear when the Syracuse Police Department enlists their help to get criminals off the streets and behind bars," said Schumer. "That is why I'm unveiling a proposal to ensure that witness intimidation is a federal crime with harsh sentencing and penalties. Syracuse law enforcement officials have consistently gone above and beyond the call of duty to catch violent criminals, but they still often highlight the negative impact that witness intimidation can play in closing these cases. The federal government must do its part to ensure the protection of witnesses so prosecutors in central New York can build a case with visual identification at the scenes of shootings, stabbings and robberies. We can't ask Syracuse PD to chase criminals with no leads because eyewitnesses fear for their lives. Last week's shooting of two teenage boys in broad daylight turned up no witnesses and no leads. Violent assailants, from Montgomery Street to Midland Avenue, should live in fear and must think twice before bullying a witness."
Schumer was joined by Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick and representatives from the City of Syracuse Police Department as he unveiled his plan that would beef up witness protections and allow prosecutors to build strong cases against criminals and deliver the appropriate sentences. The State Witness Protection Act, which Schumer co-sponsors with Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), aims to make witness intimidation a federal crime and strengthen penalties for those who attempt to prevent a witness from testifying in a court of law. Schumer noted that in light of the unsolved violent crimes in Syracuse, this legislation is critical to ensuring that violent criminals receive the strong and fair sentences that they deserve. D.A. Fitzpatrick and representatives of the Syracuse Police Department also spoke to the role that intimidation of witnesses has played in recent Syracuse crimes.
Over the last two months, the Syracuse Post-Standard has reported at least 19 instances of violent crime in the city after which witnesses did not immediately come forward. As a result, assailants and robbers were able to freely walk the streets and endanger the safety of Syracuse residents. Many of these crimes were committed in public view. On May 3, two people were shot on Merriman Avenue in front of bystanders, but Police Sgt. Tom Conellan reported that officers received "minimal information" from potential witnesses who "may be reluctant to talk." A week later, two teenagers were shot and a third stabbed on Midland and West Ostrander Avenues and no witnesses came forward. Last week, two teenagers were shot on Rich street by a man who rode off on a bicycle. The assailant remains at large while one of the boys fights for his life in Upstate University Hospital.
The State Witness Protection Act first aims to allow federal prosecutors to investigate and bring charges on witness intimidation. Specifically, this legislation makes it a federal crime to kill or attempt to kill; use or threat of physical force; harass, intimidate or attempt to intimate; or offer anything of value to another individual, with the intent to influence, delay, or prevent the testimony of an individual in a State official proceeding. The bill would also make it a crime to cause a person to withhold testimony, to prevent communication of information of the crime to a law enforcement official or a judge, and to retaliate against a witness for their attendance or supply of information at a State proceeding. Also, the legislation would cover cases involving interstate or foreign commerce, either through communication, personal travel, or the transfer of a weapon.
Schumer noted that the State Witness Protection Act also sets tough new penalties for witness intimidation. This provides the same penalties that currently exist in federal court in the case of a killing of a witness, including the possibility of the death sentence. It also increases the maximum penalty to 30 years imprisonment, up from the current state penalty of 25 years, in the case of attempted murder or the use of physical force. The bill sets a maximum of 20 years imprisonment for other types of witness intimidation, up from no more than 7 years under state law. Finally, the Schumer-backed bill would direct the United States Sentencing Commission to increase federal sentencing guidelines for obstruction of justice.