Today, at the Robert H. Jackson Federal Courthouse, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer pushed legislation designed to help Buffalo 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. In the wake of a spate of violent crimes in the Buffalo region, including recent violence thought to be retaliatory for cooperating with the authorities, Buffalo law enforcement have been left frustrated by increasing reluctance of witness to come forward with information. 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. The legislation Schumer is backing would increase the maximum penalty in cases of attempted murder or physical violence against a witness, and for other types of witness intimidation, like obstruction of justice. Schumer called for the swift passage of this legislation, so that the Buffalo police and local authorities receive all the help they need to solve crimes, find and prosecute offenders, and protect the Buffalo community.
"Innocent bystanders who witness violent crimes should no longer live in fear when Erie County law enforcement 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. The Buffalo Police Department and Erie County District Attorneys have consistently gone above and beyond the call of duty to catch violent criminals, but many of the serious crimes they are investigating were witnessed by dozens of people who are not coming forward to help. In the past few months, Erie County authorities have been forced to issue desperate pleas to the public for information on a number of serious crimes that they believe were perpetrated in full view of witnesses. The federal government must do its part to ensure the protection of witnesses, so prosecutors in western New York can build a case with visual identification at the scenes of shootings, beatings, arson, and robberies. We can't ask the local police to chase criminals with no leads because eyewitnesses fear for their lives. Violent assailants, from Jamestown to Niagara Falls should live in fear and must think twice before bullying a witness."
Schumer was joined by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda 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 unsolved violent crimes in western New York, and concerning incidents of witness intimidation, this legislation is critical to ensuring that violent criminals receive the strong and fair sentences that they deserve. Mayor Brown and Police Commissioner Derenda also spoke to the role that intimidation of witnesses has played in recent Buffalo area crimes.
"Buffalo police consistently go above and beyond the call of duty to catch violent criminals, but witness intimidation is a serious problem," said Mayor Byron Brown. "This legislation will give law enforcement another tool to help fight witness intimidation by making it a federal crime with harsher sentences for anyone who attempts to keep an individual from speaking up about a crime."
Authorities in Buffalo are concerned about several recent criminal incidents in which witnesses have either failed to come forward with information, or have acted uncooperatively with authorities once called in for questioning. In one particularly disturbing incident in June 2012, Colleen Murray was stabbed in her own home by one of the men who had burglarized her months before. She was attacked just hours before she was scheduled to take the stand to testify against the two men who had robbed her.
In another case, police and prosecutors experienced difficulty building a murder case against a man who fired a stray bullet that killed an 82 year old last year on the West Side of Buffalo. The bullet was intended for another target but struck and killed the elderly man. In the aftermath, as family and police were looking for answers, no one appeared willing to come forward despite the fact that there were witnesses reportedly at the scene.
In addition, over the past year there have been a number of cases of witness tampering and intimidation that have come to light in the region. Last month, the mother of a burglary defendant pleaded guilty to fourth-degree witness tampering for trying to dissuade a prosecution witness from testifying against her son. In September, two brothers pleaded guilty to witness tampering charges after one brother contacted a witness and threatened to kill her if his brother spent time in jail. Finally, in September during a murder trial, defendants shot at a witness causing injury to him and another innocent bystander.
Although arrests were successfully made in some of those case, the numerous other instances of witnesses failing to come forward with information in Erie 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 that. 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.
· Last year an 82 year old man was hit by a stray bullet and witnesses and those knowledgeable of the situation were reluctant to come forward and aid authorities.
· Also in September, while on trial for murder, a defendant retaliated against a witness by shooting at him and injuring both the witness and an innocent bystander.
· In October a man in jail for shooting his girlfriend in the eye with a BB gun called her from jail attempting to intimidate her into not testifying against him.
· In late October, the mother of a burglary defendant pleaded guilty to fourth-degree witness tampering in the attempt to coerce a witness into not testifying against her son.
· In June, James Blair was convicted of attempted murder. His intended victim was a 52-year old Buffalo woman, Colleen Murray, who had the courage to testify against him and an accomplice for robbing her home.
· In June, another Buffalo man was arrested for assaulting a woman who filed charges against him for damaging a sign at her business. He tried to silence her by punching her until she lost consciousness.
· In September, while his brother was on trial, a 20 year old man called and threatened to kill a witness if her testimony led to jail time for the defendant.
· The City Grill shootings that left four people dead were difficult to prosecute due to witness intimidation. Prosecutors had to compel some witnesses to testify, and an eyewitness who testified had to be relocated through Erie County's witness-protection program.
· In September 2012, two men were arrested after shooting another man who was cooperating with police in the despicable murder and mutilation of a 16 year old boy in North Buffalo. In that shooting, an innocent bystander was caught in the haze of bullets and suffered a serious injury to her leg.
· In 2009, 19 year old Jamie Norton and her friend Joey Lovett were murdered just several hours after Jamie had finished testifying against criminals who murdered a 15 year old boy. Three others were injured in the shooting.