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Senator wants federal help on witness intimidation

- Associated Press - Thursday, March 20, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - A U.S. senator is joining the Philadelphia district attorney in seeking federal help to battle a rise in witness intimidation.

Philadelphia prosecutors have filed 188 witness intimidation charges this year as of March 14, up 60 percent from the same period in 2013, according to data from the district attorney's office.

The cases this year put the city on track to return to roughly the numbers seen from 2010 to 2012, when city officials pointed to "near epidemic" levels of witness intimidation.

Since 2010, when prosecutors began compiling data on witness intimidation, more than 3,700 cases have been filed in Philadelphia, ranging from execution-style slayings to courtroom threats.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., sent a letter on Thursday to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, asking the Justice Department to devote more of its available resources to help combat witness intimidation in Philadelphia and other cities, such as by sending in federal agents.

"A strong justice system depends on the testimony of witnesses, and yet far too often in Philadelphia and other cities, witnesses face the threat of physical violence or other forms of intimidation," Casey wrote.

Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the department wouldn't comment on the request.

Casey is co-sponsoring legislation with Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to stiffen penalties and create a dedicated federal funding source to address witness intimidation. While that bill remains stalled, he also is pushing President Barack Obama's administration for additional federal grants.

Philadelphia DA Seth Williams attributed this year's increase in intimidation cases to growing public awareness that is prompting people to come forward. He stressed that efforts to protect them will remain challenging given budget-strapped state and local governments.

"Witness intimidation is a very serious phenomenon, and it's extremely urgent," he said in a telephone interview.

Late last month, charges were filed against four Philadelphia men after a witness was shot several times while leaving his home on the first day of a trial in a low-level gun case in which he was to testify in 2011. He survived and is now getting witness protection.

In recent years, the city has helped move roughly 150 families annually to protect witnesses.

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