Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Intimidated witnesses

Victim jailed: Accused freed

No-show witnesses or victims are a serious problem for Hamilton County judges, prosecutors and police, but Common Pleas Judge Patrick Dinkelacker was wrong to show his exasperation by jailing a terrified rape victim for contempt of court.

The 33-year-old North Fairmount woman, a mother of two, was a three-time no-show, forcing Dinkelacker to dismiss a rape and kidnapping case against Michael Lindsey, 25, also of North Fairmount. The judge said he had to dismiss five of his last 25 cases because either a witness or victim failed to show up. But, but he could have picked a better case to make an example of than a rape victim fearing retaliation. The woman now has been victimized three times - once when she was attacked, once when she was threatened with retaliation, and once by the judge who locked her up.

The woman said neighbors threatened her and her children, and called her a snitch. She figured even if she went to jail, at least she would still be alive. Dinkelacker's action is no way to bring violent crime under control in neighborhoods. He is employing the same tactics as those who frightened the woman out of testifying.

Judges should unload on anyone who tries to intimidate a witness or a victim. It's a third degree felony; judges should impose the maximum five years. Law enforcement needs to seek more safeguards to reassure victims and witnesses who testify. A witness assistance program proposed by County Commissioner Phil Heimlich and Cincinnati City Council candidate Tom Jones is one possibility. Community leaders need to convince neighborhood residents they must cooperate with police and the courts to rid themselves of violent criminals.

Under the April 2002 Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement for police reforms, plaintiff groups were obligated to prevail on the community to help police and the courts.

"We have gotten absolutely zero from anyone associated with the collaborative agreement," County Prosecutor Mike Allen said. "Nothing has been done to ask residents to cooperate with police. It's still an us vs. them mentality. The system can't work unless witnesses come forward. Once they do, we have an obligation to make sure they are protected."

It's not just no-shows. Intimidated witnesses change their story by the time they go before the grand jury. Some are domestic violence victims. Many are crack cocaine cases. "The dope boys are ruthless," Allen said. "The system has to come down on (the intimidators) like a ton of bricks."

For the system to work, victims and witnesses must have the courage to testify. But when a victim is too terrified to testify, she needs comfort, protection and reassurance, not a jail cell.

Jailed woman now will testify
• Pulfer column: The wrong messenger
• Saturday story: Rape victim jailed, accused free

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