Vice Squad
Monday, January 17, 2005
The Elephant in the Room

Yesterday's New York Times included this front page story about the extent to which inner city gangs intimidate or harm potential witnesses who might testify against them in court. A sample:
Wesley Adams, who prosecutes homicides for the state's attorney of Baltimore City, said virtually all of his cases that were not domestic homicides were hampered by witness intimidation. In 2003, Mr. Adams said, when he tried nine homicides, 23 of the 35 witnesses he managed to get to the stand either recanted or lied, and that was not counting many others who were too scared and simply disappeared.

Under a program started in August, two Baltimore City detectives have been assigned full time to try to find missing witnesses. They are currently looking for 77 people.
The article is a good one, but what I find surprising is that there is no attempt to examine the main source of the witness intimidation problem: drug prohibition. It is drug prohibition that calls many of these gangs into existence and ensures that they are funded and armed. The baleful effects of drug prohibition on the justice system are immense and, as in this article, typically underestimated. The US is not exempt from the types of law enforcement breakdowns that have engulfed other countries thanks to the drug laws -- as hinted at in the article:
"Witness intimidation has become so pervasive that it is ruining the public's faith in the criminal justice system to protect them," said Judge John M. Glynn of Baltimore City Circuit Court. "We are not much better off than the legal system in Mexico or Colombia or some other sad places."

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