Long Island, NY - May 29th, 2013 - U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today pushed legislation designed to help Nassau and Suffolk County 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. Authorities in Nassau and Suffolk County have been left frustrated by the reluctance of witnesses to come forward with information – a trend they believe is being fueled by a climate of fear created by perpetrators. 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 or chasing a lead. The legislation Schumer is backing would increase the potential maximum penalty to 30 years in prison in cases of attempted murder or physical violence against a witness, and increase the potential maximum sentence to 20 years in jail for other types of witness intimidation, like obstruction of justice. Schumer called for the swift passage of this legislation, so that local law enforcement receive all the help they need to solve crimes, find and prosecute offenders, and protect Long Island communities.
Schumer was joined by Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy, Freeport Police Chief Miguel Bermudez, and Dr. Kishore Kuncham, Superintendent of the Freeport Public Schools 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 a rash of violent crimes and incidents involving witness tampering and intimidation, this legislation is critical to ensuring that violent criminals receive the strong and fair sentences that they deserve.
“Innocent bystanders who witness violent crimes should no longer live in fear when our 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. Nassau and Suffolk County law enforcement officials 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 people who are not coming forward to help. The federal government must do its part to ensure the protection of witnesses so law enforcement on Long Island can build a real case. Eyewitnesses should not have to fear for their lives and this bill will make violent assailants think twice before bullying a witness.”
"Witness intimidation is one of the most difficult challenges police and prosecutors face in the fight against gang-related crime,” said Nassau County District Attorney Rice. “ Victims and witnesses are afraid to come forward fearing retaliation and violence, and I have seen first hand the lengths criminals will go to stop witnesses from testifying against them. I thank Senator Schumer for proposing the State Witness Protection Act which will protect witnesses from intimidation and punish those who try to silence them.”
"Cooperation by witnesses with prosecutors and detectives is often essential to the arrest and prosecution of violent felons. Senator Schumer’s initiative will provide the critical support needed to protect the health and safety of courageous citizens willing to risk their lives to assist law enforcement in making their neighborhoods safe,” said Suffolk County District Attorney Spota.
"Gang violence is a scourge in our communities and law enforcement must have access to every available tool to defeat it. This legislation will provide an additional layer of protection and will allow witnesses to violent crimes the ability to seek out police without the fear of retaliation. I thank and applaud Senator Schumer for his efforts,” said Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy.
“In recent years, law enforcement’s ability to locate cooperating witnesses in criminal cases has become increasingly one of the more demanding factors of the investigatory process. Stronger witness protection in the form of federal legislation and programs will serve as a valuable tool for successful prosecution of violent criminals. Law enforcement would like to thank Senator Schumer and applaud him for his effort in recognizing how vital the need for special legislation is to protecting the citizens of our communities who agree to serve as an eyewitness to a criminal act,” said Freeport Chief of Police Miguel Bermudez.
There have been numerous incidents of gang violence throughout the Long Island region, in communities such as: Brentwood, Huntington Station, Rockville Centre and Hempstead Village.
Numerous witness tampering cases on Long Island are gang-related and law enforcement are seriously concerned about a gang culture of intimidating witnesses who might aid police in prosecuting crimes. In some cases, witnesses to these crimes have either failed to come forward, or have remained tight-lipped about their knowledge of a given crime. In other, more severe instances, witnesses to crimes have been murdered to keep them silent. The inability to track down these culprits of these crimes leaves area residents in danger of being in the line of fire when the next gang-related incident occurs and witnesses fail to come forward.
Furthermore, each county District Attorney’s office report a number of occasions where gang members have attended trials in the courtroom and glared at witnesses at when they take the stand and are asked to testify against or identify defendants. This creates an atmosphere in which witnesses are scared and fear for reprisal because of their actions in court and has left local authorities struggling to find witnesses willing to come forward.
In 2009, three witnesses said they saw gangmember Carl Perryman of Rockville Center shoot his friend but as the trial came closer, the witnesses backed off their original testimony. Prosecutors believed that Perryman threatened the witnesses. In 2010, seventeen members of the Brentwood street gang MS-13 were arraigned. One member was charged with threatening and attempting to intimidate witnesses to an assault to prevent the witnesses from testifying. Last year, a murder suspect in Coram was accused of two counts of witness intimidation. He allegedly shot a 21-year old man and then threatened two witnesses the following day.
Schumer noted that the State Witness Intimidation 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.
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