Street gang members and other thugs who commit crimes and then threaten witnesses were put on notice Monday that Congress may soon adopt a law that would, for the first time, make witness intimidation a federal offense with harsh punishments.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said witness intimidation has become a national issue in law enforcement’s ability to solve crimes. He said it demands sending a strong message that gangsters will be put behind bars for decades or even face the death penalty if they kill a witness.
“The gangs have a watchword, ‘If you snitch to law enforcement, we’re going to get you.’ It has gotten much worse than in the past. We want to make sure criminals think twice before they intimidate,” Schumer said in the lobby of the downtown Robert H. Jackson Federal Courthouse. He was flanked by Mayor Byron W. Brown, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda and Deputy Police Commissioner Charles H. Tomaszewski.
Schumer also promised to help a Buffalo woman left paralyzed from the waist down last fall when a gunman seeking retribution for witness cooperation forced his way into her East Side apartment and shot her as other family members scattered. The shooter, police and relatives believe, was gunning for her daughter, who had cooperated in the investigation of a drive-by shooting last May.
In making a point of how much influence gangs are gaining in scaring off witnesses, Schumer held up a T-shirt with the words “Snitches get Stitches” splashed across the front.
“This shows you the level of intimidation. You can buy these shirts in stores. Clearly, it is critical we protect people who come forward,” he said. “People are afraid. It is like the Wild West until the lawman comes into town.”
Citing the 50 homicides in Buffalo last year, Schumer said only 12 ended in arrests and that witness intimidation accounted for many of the unsolved slayings, adding that this problem is repeating itself in other regions of the country where gangs are gaining increased power.
“When I talk to national associations of district attorneys and police chiefs, this is at the top of their list,” he said of the need for a strong federal law to thwart the spread of witness intimidation. “There is bipartisan support for this and it could be adopted in three or four months.”
While killing a witness already can lead to the death penalty in federal court, Schumer’s State Witness Protection Act would increase the maximum penalty to 30 years in prison, up from 25 years under state law, for attempted murder or the use of force against a witness.
It also would establish a maximum of 20 years in prison for other types of witness intimidation, up from seven years under current state law.
Hearing Schumer repeatedly bash those who intimidate witnesses and tout the proposed law was good news to Brown and Derenda, who frequently show up at crime scenes to urge members of the public to cooperate with investigators by calling or texting the police confidential TIP-CALL line at 847-2255.
“This sends a strong message to the criminal element that you could get 20 or 30 years in jail,” Brown said, adding that local police alone cannot solve this problem and need the help of federal officials.
FBI agents, federal prosecutors and U.S. marshals, Schumer said, would be unleashed on those who threaten or attack witnesses.
As for Tara Hall, the woman left paralyzed by a masked gunman’s bullet, Schumer said it was a case where her daughter tried to do the right thing by cooperating with authorities and the family paid a terrible price.
“It’s so awful. This young woman comes forward and what happens, her mother gets shot and is paralyzed,” the senator said.
When told of the 48-year-old Hall’s frustrations in being unable to find a wheelchair-accessible apartment, in order to leave the West Side nursing home where she was placed after a month at Erie County Medical Center, Schumer said his office would attempt to assist her.
“We will try to help her find a good place,” Schumer said.
Hall said any help the senator provides is sincerely appreciated. She says her goal is to regain use of her legs and become self-sufficient.
Before she was shot, the mother of five children – ranging in age from 14 to 26 – says she supported herself with odd jobs, from painting homes to roofing, siding and landscaping, while living in the upper apartment at her mother’s home.