Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley urged state legislators yesterday to give more protection to victims and witnesses and to more harshly punish those who try to intimidate them.
Witnesses are intimidated in 90 percent of cases involving guns, gangs, and serious violence that pass through his office, Conley said. He recounted the story of one woman who worked up the courage to testify, only to turn around and flee when she saw friends of the defendant, a gang member, sitting in bench after bench in the courtroom.
''She cried to the Victim Witness advocate from my office that she might as well just put a bull's-eye on her back," Conley told members of the Joint Committee on Public Safety, who called the hearing to explore possible legislative solutions to surging gang violence throughout the state.
In Boston, police blame gang activity, in part, for an increase in homicides, to 53 so far this year.
Intimidation of victims and witnesses is ''an issue that has never received the full attention it deserves and, as a result, is now one of the most prevalent and insidious problems in the criminal justice system," said Conley, one of about two dozen law enforcement officials and community activists from Boston, Chelsea, New Bedford, and Springfield to speak at the hearing. ''Make no mistake about it: Intimidation is as much a weapon in a gang member's arsenal as a gun or a knife."
Witnesses are especially critical to police when it comes to solving crimes committed by gang members, Conley said, so the Legislature must allocate funding so the district attorney's office can pay for emergency relocation and housing for witnesses.
It is also imperative for Massachusetts to adopt the federal standard for perjury, Conley said. Under federal law, prosecutors must only show two conflicting statements under oath to prosecute perjury. In Massachusetts, prosecutors must prove not only that a witness has given two different accounts under oath, but also must prove which of the two accounts is true.
''In many cases, we have to retry significant portions of the underlying case the person is lying about," said David Procopio, a spokesman for Conley. Witnesses are prosecuted for perjury when law enforcement authorities believe they are lying to protect a criminal, Procopio said, not when they are simply afraid.
Conley also told the committee he has proposed legislation that would prohibit the unauthorized possession, use, or distribution of grand jury transcripts.
Defense lawyers are allowed to give clients copies of grand jury documents, unless prosecutors ask that names or other portions be blacked out because a witness is at risk and the judge agrees.
Raffi Yessayan, the prosecutor in charge of the gang unit in Suffolk County, said the law should be changed so that judges must remove witness names from grand jury documents any time a witness makes the request.
Conley told the panel that gang members routinely circulate grand jury documents as an intimidation tactic. ''In one case, gang members had posted copies of transcripts to all of the front doors of a nearby housing project," Conley said.
But some defense lawyers say that sweeping changes that eliminate case-by-case consideration of witness protection set a dangerous precedent. ''What they're trying to do is saying generically that all of these cases present a hazard, and that's just wrong," said Andrew Good, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Good said he also wonders how effective it would be to routinely redact grand jury documents, since witnesses have to testify in open court anyway. ''It's not going to prevent the dissemination of the information," Good said. ''If they have a real problem, they should have a real solution, which would be to make a showing that the defendant presents a hazard to the witness, based on some behavior and some facts."
Others who testified yesterday told legislators that federal and state budget cuts have eviscerated summer jobs and community-policing programs. State Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, the Cambridge Democrat who led the hearing, asked Robert Haas, undersecretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety, if Governor Romney plans to provide money for crime prevention in his new budget next year. ''This is out of my area," Haas said. ''I'd be glad to get that information after the hearing."
Barrios said he plans to pursue the matter. ''I sincerely hope that the governor, who talks tough about preventing gang violence, will come through with the resources communities are going to need to combat gang violence," Barrios said in an interview.
Officials also called the sharing of information by law enforcement critical to dealing with gang violence.
Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly told the panel that he has failed several times to get legislation passed that would make it easier for prosecutors, police, and school officials to share information on juveniles.
''The best way to fight crime is to prevent it," Reilly said. ''Information is key to prevention."
Suzanne Smalley can be reached at email@example.com