Witness intimidation is the practice of threatening a witness in a court proceeding in an effort to influence his testimony. A very real problem in the United States and other countries, this practice has elicited a variety of responses, from criminalization to establishing elaborate programs to protect witnesses. Witness intimidation appears to take two different forms: specific threats against a witness, and the establishment of an environment of intimidation and cultural demonization of those who testify or act as informants to law enforcement. In the former case, witness intimidation is perpetrated by individual criminal defendants and their associates; in the latter, it’s become a cultural phenomenon with its roots in popular music.
The American Constitution entitles a criminal defendant to “ . . . be confronted with the witnesses against him.” In practice, this means that defendants are told in advance the particulars of those who will testify for the prosecution, potentially facilitating improper or intimidating communications with witnesses. Despite this, in an overwhelming majority of cases, witnesses testify without intimidation, and return to their regular routines afterward without fear of retaliation. In those cases where intimidation does take place, law enforcement often goes to great lengths to protect witnesses, the most extreme example of which are witness protection and relocation programs, which involve providing witnesses who are legitimately in fear for their lives with new identities and fresh starts in undisclosed locations. This is a very extreme measure because it involves witnesses cutting all ties with family and friends for the purpose of survival.
A famous case of attempted witness intimidation was that of Sammy “The Bull” Gravano in New York City, an organized crime figure who turned state’s evidence against John Gotti in 1991 in exchange for reduced charges against himself. A public relations campaign against Gravano ensued, with posters of Gravano’s head superimposed on the body of a rat pasted throughout the city. Gotti was sentenced to life without parole, while Gravano was sentenced to five years on a relatively minor charge, following which he entered the federal Witness Protection Program. He left the program after a few years and ultimately returned to a life of crime; he was sentenced to 19 years in prison in the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
Another form of witness intimidation is cultural pressure. In certain groups and segments of society, cooperation with law enforcement is considered taboo, and many witnesses to crimes refuse to cooperate, even if it means violent criminals remain free to continue their criminal activity. Cultural expressions that glorify illegal activity also demonize law enforcement and those who cooperate with it, further reinforcing the taboo. Sometimes, an effort is made to suggest that the object of the taboo isn’t the honest witness who offers eyewitness testimony of a crime, but those who act as informants, or “snitches,” to law enforcement, or those who offer testimony against a defendant in return for favorable treatment in their own criminal cases or incarceration. These snitches, it’s claimed, will exaggerate or lie to improve their own situation.
A prime example of witness intimidation through cultural pressure is the Stop Snitchin’ campaign that gained national prominence when a DVD by that name was produced and distributed in the Baltimore, Maryland area in 2004. The DVD threatened violent retribution against those who shared information about illegal activity with law enforcement; its creator, Rodney Thomas, was convicted in 2006 of first degree assault. The Stop Snitchin’ slogan has been used in a number of hip-hop recordings, and numerous additional recordings have defamed and demonized those who cooperate with law enforcement.
Witness intimidation is a serious threat to the integrity of any criminal justice system. When attempts are uncovered, the system’s response is usually swift and unambiguous; those found guilty of witness intimidation are generally charged with felonies, and when the threat exists but there’s insufficient proof to charge or convict a perpetrator, protection of the witness becomes an urgent priority. A system that can’t protect its witnesses quickly loses credibility.