In the wake of a spate of shootings in Utica over the past few months, including two shootings this month in which the victims would not cooperate with police, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today reintroduced legislation designed to help Oneida County law enforcement officials protect key witnesses who provide the police with information about crimes, help identify suspects, or testify during trials. The legislation also increases criminal penalties on those, like gangs, that seek to intimidate witnesses.
Authorities in Utica have been left frustrated by increasing reluctance of witness to come forward with information -- a trend they believe is being fueled by a climate of fear and intimidation created by perpetrators. To address this, the Schumer-backed State Witness Protection Act would, for the first time, make witness intimidation a federal crime, and toughen sentences for anyone who attempts to intimidate a witness, or prevents them from going to the police with important information that could help in cracking a case, or chasing a lead. The legislation Schumer is backing 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 called for the swift passage of this legislation, so that local law enforcement receive all the help they need to solve crimes, find and prosecute offenders, and protect Utica and surrounding Oneida County communities.
"With two high-profile shootings in Utica in just the past two weeks, and not nearly enough willing witnesses stepping forward to help solve these violent crimes, it's time that more forceful federal law enforcement tools were made available," said Schumer. "Those who witness or are the target of violent crimes should no longer live in fear when Oneida County law enforcement enlists their help to get criminals off the streets and behind bars. That is why I am reintroducing the plan today to ensure that witness intimidation is a federal crime with harsh sentencing and penalties. The federal government must do its part to ensure the protection of witnesses, so prosecutors in the Utica region can build a case with visual identification at the scenes of shootings. We can't ask the local police to chase criminals with no leads because eyewitnesses fear for their lives. Violent assailants from Utica to Rome and areas beyond should live in fear and must think twice before bullying a witness."
Utica's Common Council will also take up the issue of witness intimidation at an upcoming council meeting, where a resolution supporting Schumer's plan will be voted on by the Council. North Utica Councilwoman Samantha Colosimo-Testa drafted the resolution and submitted it into committee. "Senator Schumer's plan is a real solution and cities like Utica, where there is distinct proof that witness intimidation is a real threat, are the cities that should be following our lead: identify a problem and then work with federal representatives to solve it," said Colosimo-Testa, who is sponsoring the resolution.
Schumer's reintroduced plan 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 unsolved violent crimes in Utica, and concerning incidents of witness intimidation, this legislation is critical to ensuring that violent criminals receive the strong and fair sentences that they deserve.
Considering the gang-related nature of the shooting incidences in Utica, police authorities are worried about witness tampering and intimidation. Witnesses to these crimes have either failed to come forward, or have remained tight-lipped about the situation. The inability to track down the culprits of these crimes leaves Utica residents in danger of being in the line of fire when the next round of shots ring out, which is becoming almost a nightly occurrence.
Utica Police Department stated that witnesses--and even victims--seem extremely reluctant to cooperate with police due to a mentality of wanting to take care of things themselves. Usually people present at the scene of the crime tell police that they did not see or hear anything related to the shots being fired or who fired them. Due to this lack of cooperation and evidence from eyewitnesses and victims, making arrests for shootings in public places has been problematic, if not next to impossible.
Witness intimidation and tampering is nothing new for Utica and Oneida County officials. Within the past three years, law enforcement authorities have had marked difficulty in investigating and prosecuting gang-related violence. Past occurrences involve witnesses who are unreliable or themselves have criminal histories becoming uncooperative with law enforcement during the process of an investigation or trial. These instances can often be tied to witnesses being targets of tampering or intimidation.
Although arrests are sometimes made in these gang-related cases, the numerous other instances of witnesses failing to come forward with information in Oneida County suggests that criminals are successfully fueling a climate of fear and intimidation. In addition, it is abundantly clear that witness intimidation must be harshly punished once criminals are caught, so as to deter the behavior in the future. The State Witness Protection Act is designed to remedy this problem. First, it aims to allow federal prosecutors to investigate and bring charges on witness intimidation. Specifically, it 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 seven 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.
This law attempts to curb the scourge of witness intimidation that has prevented Utica law enforcement from putting a number of violent criminals behind bars. The following list details just a few examples from this month, alone, in which witnesses have been hard to find and victims unwilling to talk.
No arrests have been made in the following cases of just this current month:
· On May 14, police discovered ten 9mm shell casings on the 700 block of Rutger Street in response to a "shots fired' call.
· On May 9, police initially received a call for shots fired in the area of South Street and Kossuth Avenue at about 3 a.m. and found a bullet had struck a home on White Place.
· On May 6, a Churchill Avenue man was shot and was unwilling to cooperate with police. This case remains open.
· On May 8, a 20-year-old man was shot twice in the upper leg at about 12:30 a.m. on the 900 block of Mary Street in East Utica. While this shooting now has a suspect in custody, Utica Police noted the victim remains unhelpful.
· And in one of the most blatant examples of intimidation, last year Utica Police had to stop canvassing a neighborhood after a "shots fired' call because individuals were yelling "Snitch" at those appearing to be cooperative with police.