Updated 08/30/2012 11:31 PM
Schumer introduces State Witness Protection Act
Utica's shots fired incidents have skyrocketed in the month of August and Utica police believe many of them were connected. Our Andrew Sorensen tells us about the new law Senator Charles Schumer is proposing, which he says will help law enforcement track down and prosecute criminals with unprecedented power.
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UTICA, N.Y. -- Utica's police and prosecutors have a chronic problem getting witnesses to testify or even talk in violent crimes.
"It's more common than not where our witnesses get intimidated. The minor things are people show up at their house. The other end of the spectrum is their house gets shot up," Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara said Thursday.
The problem has come to a head during the month of August, when there have been a string of more than 30 shots fired incidents. Senator Charles Schumer felt it was time for the federal government to step in.
"Police investigators had to actually stop canvassing the neighborhood because people watching the canvas were yelling, 'Snitch,' at anyone who looked like they were cooperating with police," Schumer said.
Schumer announced the introduction of the State Witness Protection Act Thursday. He hopes it would encourage witnesses to talk by allowing the FBI to investigate harassment. It could also land perpetrators in prison for a maximum of 30 years for attempted murder or physical force and a maximum of 20 years for other types of intimidation against a witness.
"Word of the safety net on streets could get us more leads and help our law enforcement prosecute criminals," he said.
Utica police eventually overcame tight-lipped streets to arrest five men in connection with this month's shootings and they feel certain they've cleaned up the mess for now.
"For the last seven days, knock on wood, we have not had a drive-by shooting or shots fired call. So it's apparent that we've got the right people," Utica Police Chief Mark Williams said.
But prosecution is where it gets ugly. McNamara says this magazine ad sent to a homicide witness in 2005 is a perfect example of the intimidation witnesses need protection from.
"Right now our power is somewhat limited and our punishment at state court level pales in comparison to what the Senator is proposing," McNamara explained.
Both the DA and the Utica Police Chief believe this new law is critical to deterring witness harassment and getting convictions.
"People don't want to serve that kind of time. Serving a small bit in the county jail or maybe going to shock camp at the state prison level doesn't seem to be that big of a deal," McNamara said.
As the police and DA build their case against the five men accused in the recent violence, it's unclear how quickly the new legislation can be enacted to deal with the city's current cases before someone is hurt, or possibly even killed.
Senator Schumer's is co-sponsoring the bill with Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey.
Schumer says he expects bipartisan support on the bill going forward.