Key witnesses in St. Louis crimes are being threatened and intimidated, even killed. That's according to St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, who spoke with lawmakers in Jefferson City Tuesday about changing that.
"A lot of witnesses are coming forward saying, we want to participate, but we can't,” explains Gardner. She says it’s a serious problem that impacts nearly 50% of their cases. When witnesses get scared and drop out, that often means prosecutors are forced to drop the charges or lose the case. Sometimes, it means they can't even charge the criminal to begin with.
Gardner says these witnesses are afraid of retaliation, intimidated through phone calls and unsolicited visits to their home, even letters written from jail.
Court documents also show phone records from jail; defendants on the hunt for witnesses. One said, "I'm just really tryna put the plan in motion… and get information on [the witness].”
And Gardner says these are not empty threats: "We have charged people with murder of witnesses, and we're prosecuting those right now."
This problem dates back to a court ruling in 1979, which makes a witness's key identifying information, such as date of birth, home address and phone number, available to the defendant. Gardner says modern technology makes it easier for criminals to track down witnesses: "It keeps criminals on the street, it makes them become emboldened, and then they end up intimidating more people because they see it works, and so it's an imbalance."
This imbalance isn't isolated to St. Louis. Gardner says Missouri has some of the weakest witness protection laws in the country. Prosecutors from around the state are now working to pass House Bill 1155 to keep a witness's identifying factors confidential. In cases where defendants already know the witness, protective orders would be put into place.
"We can't defend against everything, but I think this is a great start. If we protect people's identifiers, at the very least we're not putting them in harm's way."
On behalf of prosecutors throughout Missouri, Gardner presented the case to the House Judiciary Committee for these witness protection measures.