Oregon prosecutors develop new safety plan for witnesses in criminal cases


In response to a growing number of threats to witnesses in criminal cases, state prosecutors developed a new safety plan to protect Oregonians.

It's called the Witness Intimidation Support Program, or WISP.

State prosecutors say gang, domestic violence and trafficking cases are compromised all the time because witnesses are fearful to testify in court. They are hopeful this new program will change that.

Providing witness testimony in a murder trial can be dangerous. In Portland, prosecutors think it cost Robert Ford his life.

"His life became endangered because of his willingness to step forward on a serious cold case homicide," said Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill.

Underhill tells FOX 12, he and some others who were working on Ford's case several years ago, helped patch together enough funds to move him down to Sacramento for safety. Ultimately, Ford wound up coming back to town.

"In 2012, he was approached by a gunman in a parking lot and was murdered. We believe in large part because of his participation as a witness," he added.

Back then, Oregon did not have a witness protection program.

"This perception of danger, this perception of retaliation, this belief that you may get harmed is actually real," said Underhill.

After Ford's death, Underhill said he pushed to fund a witness protection program for Multnomah County.

Working with the Federal Bureau of Justice Assistance and the state's Criminal Justice Commission he wound up securing funds for the entire state. Oregon is now one of only a handful of states in the country to have its own witness protection program.

"We sought out $200,000 on behalf of the state and it was approved."

The program, developed by the Oregon District Attorney's Association sets specific guidelines as to who qualifies for protection. Cases involving a high degree of risk are given priority. Those victims, witnesses and their families are provided protection by law enforcement along with funds for relocation and basic monthly expenses.

"It is a limited $200,000 and while that sounds like a lot, and it is, it's not necessarily a lot for the whole state. So, we have to be careful on how we spend it. At the end of the day it's tax payer dollars and when it's gone it's gone."

The program went into effect earlier this year. Almost immediately, Underhill said the county had a witness in need of protection.

"She was being intimidated, she was being threatened," said Underhill.

Because of the program, Underhill said that witness felt safe to share what she knew about the night Duriel Harris was murdered outside of a Portland nightclub.

Testimony, that lead to a conviction.

"It's very satisfying, I'm very proud," said Underhill. "We have to take it very seriously when witnesses come forward having seeing something, or having experienced something, so we need to make sure they don't just feel safe, but are safe."

Since WISP funding is to be shared with every county in Oregon, the money is set to be divided up at a rate that's based on county population and need. All information about participants will remain confidential.

The federal witness protection program is also in place to protect witnesses who cooperate with the US government. Since 1971, US marshals say they've protected nearly 19,000 people.

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