originally published April 4, 2014
This might sound stupid – and I realize now as I plot out the journey of the remainder of this sentence that it does indeed sound fundamentally stupid down to the core of its clanging consonants – but I’ve always perceived a palpable thrill attached to the concept of the witness protection program. Forget the fact that you might always be looking over your shoulder, or that nine out of ten times you’re probably a criminal testifying against a more important criminal before you get to join the program – it’s a slate-wiping, sin-scratching, skin-shedding fresh start. Who wouldn’t want that?
Okay, I’m glamorizing a societal necessity, supported by a culture of violence and murder. TV and movies have taught me that witness protection serves either as a plot point to disguise a character’s shady past or as the eventual salvation for the antihero we’ve been cheering for. This is the problem with being raised by TV – its stories tend to omit a number of details and all of the paperwork.
Not every country has a witness relocation program in place. For many it’s a matter of protection as a case warrants it, with the police usually clearing out once the testimony is complete. But sometimes a relocation, a new identity and a new life become the end-result of a witness’s gutsy testimony. That’s where the real story begins.
The first instance of witness protection popped up as part of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. During the post-Civil War period, when many southerners were aghast at the unconscionable decree by “the man” that no longer allowed them the God-given right to own people, the KKK was particularly active. Part of the Act included government protection for anyone who was willing to testify against Klan members, who had a habit of being a tetch on the violent side when it came to their enemies.
Around the middle of the 20th century, the FBI began the process of assigning new identities to witnesses. It’s important to remember that nearly the entire cupboard of witness protection is stocked with well-armed cops or well-armed agents whose job is to protect the witness from attack before and during a trial. The actual re-assigning of lives and cross-country transports to start anew are notoriously rare.
The modern Witness Security Program (known colloquially as WITSEC, because it sounds way more bad-ass than W.S.P.) came into being as part of the 1970 Organized Crime Control Act. Not a lot is known about WITSEC – which is kind of the point – but we know that most witnesses are handled by the US Marshals Service, with those already behind bars being tended to by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The 24/7 armed surveillance usually ends once the witness has done their due on the stand, and after that it’s new ID time, if necessary.
The Marshals are very thorough, developing backstories and wholly legal documents for the witness’s new persona. Job training may be provided, and housing, living expenses and free medical care are also handed over. They need to make an appealing offer to talk someone into pointing a legal finger at a bad guy. In total, roughly 8500 witnesses and 9900 family members have entered into the program. That’s a heap of new identities.
With all those bodies scooting silently about from life to life, you’d think there would be a small percentage who would get tracked down by those they have pissed off. In fact, the Witness Protection Program is rather proud of their 0% failure rate; not a single soul in the program – including family members – has been harmed due to a breach in security. Not that there hasn’t been a close call or two. Federal officer John Thomas Ambrose was convicted just a few years ago of leaking info about the location of Chicago-area hitman Nicholas Calabrese to other local mobsters. Calabrese happened to be in federal lockup at the time though, and steps were taken to shuffle him out of harm’s way before anything could go horribly wrong.
It’s worth noting that, according to Gerald Shur, the man who created the federal program, something like 95% of participants in WITSEC are criminals themselves, likely avoiding charges of their own (or taking a reduced-time plea) to bring down a bigger fish. That’s not to say that most aren’t grateful for the opportunity; around 17% of protected witnesses with a criminal background will be caught committing another crime, whereas the statistic among parolees heading from prison back to the streets is close to 41%. So for the most part, people are happy for the fresh start. Sometimes, however, the consequences of that fresh start can be deadly.
In New Zealand, those who entered the witness protection programme (similar to the American program, but with two superfluous letters) also had their previous records wiped away. This is how Jonathon Barclay, who had been arrested under his prior identity for drunk driving, was able to receive only five months on a manslaughter conviction (that’s some major first-offense light sentencing) when he drunkenly drove into Debbie Ashton and killed her. This happened in 2007 – I’m hoping New Zealand has tightened up the system since then.
Canada didn’t land a Witness Protection Program until a 1996 act of parliament. I can’t find any statistics on how many new identities have been forged through our system, but I’d bet the number is incredibly low. More often – just like in the US – the Mounties are merely protecting witnesses throughout the trial when the danger is present and immediate. One thing I’m not sure if we offer (that America does) is protection for foreign witnesses who are willing to venture inside our borders to testify to some nefarious international doings, like drug or human trafficking.
Charles Bowden, who will likely be played by Neil Young in the movie about his life, was the first entrant into Ireland’s witness protection program. He witnessed a murder and wound up bringing down a quartet of nasty Irish gangsters. When he was eventually relocated (after being released from prison) it was to a foreign country, complete with a paid-for house and a new job.
For most countries, witness relocation has to mean shipping the person off to another country. For them it’s a question of real estate; a smaller country means it’s harder to stash someone into a new crowd. What worries me are the countries that don’t offer any sort of witness protection. I don’t know how they talk people in those countries into putting their safety at risk to bring down the local bad guys. Maybe they bribe them with jelly beans, but that can’t work very often.
As for me, I know nothing and would have nothing to offer to the cops that would warrant a fresh start with a new identity. The best I’ll be able to achieve on that front is a new haircut. I guess it’s a start.