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Falling Off the Face of the Earth
The Witness Security Program is designed to create total anonymity for witnesses and help them blend into a new city where they most likely won't be recognized. The United States has more than 300 million people and thousands of cities in which to hide a protected witness. Following the acceptance of a witness into the program, the Marshals Service is tasked with creating a new identity and finding a new city for the witness, his family and any endangered associates. This requires the coordination of multiple government agencies, good timing and total secrecy.
After the witness receives a pre-admittance briefing by Marshals Service personnel and agrees to enter the program, he and his family are immediately removed from their current location and taken to a temporary, secure holding area.
While witnesses are given a fresh start in a new community, their past transgressions are not completely ignored. The Marshals Service often notifies local law enforcement in the new community of the presence of the witness and his criminal history. The Marshals Service also can mandate random drug or alcohol testing and set other conditions to ensure the success of the program. In return, the Marshals Service will:
· Obtain one reasonable job opportunity for the witness
· Provide assistance in finding housing
· Provide subsistence payments on average of $60,000 per year
· Provide identity documents for witnesses and family members whose names are changed for security purposes
· Arrange for counseling and advice by psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers when the need has been substantiated
As far as choosing a new name, witnesses can have their pick. However, according to the book WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program, co-written by the program's creator, Gerald Shur, witnesses are advised to keep their current initials or same first name. Name changes are done by the court system just like any name change, but the records are sealed.
Once in the program, the Marshals Service provides 24-hour protection while they are in a high-threat area, including pre-trial proceedings and court appearances. In the next section, we'll look at how the Marshals Service gets witness to and from court without incident.
The entire purpose of the witness protection program is to keep the witnesses safe so that they can testify at trials that could convict members of organized crime, gangs or terrorist networks. Perhaps the riskiest part of the process is when the witness returns to testify.
A great number of precautions are taken, and security is maximized at this time. In his book, Shur describes bringing witnesses in mail trucks, helicopters and fishing boats. In one instance, an armored car was sent with a full police escort as a decoy while former Mafia member Joseph Barboza was snuck in through a side door of the courthouse. At trial, even witnesses no longer in the program are given protection if they are testifying in cases for which the witness originally entered the program.
Taking such drastic measures to protect witnesses has paid off for prosecutors. Since the program's inception in 1970, it has achieved an overall conviction rate of 89 percent as a result of protected witness testimony, and more than 10,000 criminals have been convicted, according to the Marshals Service.
All requests for a witness's appearance must come through the Marshals Service or OEO with at least 10 days' notice. Prosecutors and law enforcement agents are required to conduct conferences or interviews of relocated witnesses at neutral sites designated by the Marshals Service. For prisoner-witnesses, conferences are conducted at the prisoner's assigned federal prison.
Once the trial is over, it is time for the witness and his family to enter their new life.
Living the New Life
One of the key objectives of the Witness Security Program is to help witnesses assimilate into their new communities and become self-sufficient. Among other things, this requires assistance with securing employment. However, from the beginning of the program, there has been some concern that the government could be helping witnesses too much. Keep in mind that many witnesses are former criminals themselves.
To ensure witnesses don't get too much of a leg up in their new lives, local law enforcement is informed of a witness's location. Further, protected witnesses are expected to find employment and become self-sufficient as soon as possible. The Marshals Service will assist witnesses with finding employment -- however, if a witness fails to aggressively seek employment, subsistence payments will be terminated. At that point, the relocated witness can enroll in public assistance if he or she chooses.
The most important rule of the program is that witnesses must not make contact with former associates or unprotected family members. They also must not return to the town from which they were relocated. According to the Marshals Service, no witness who has followed these rules has ever been killed.
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