'No Snitching' Messages Pervade Justice System

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Several cities around the country are coping with a wave of "no snitching" messages, leaving many witnesses afraid to testify in criminal court. A recent case in Newark, N.J., resulted in a perjury charge for a witness who claimed to have been intimidated on the stand. New Jersey prosecutor Paula Dow talks about how the street trend is impacting the criminal justice system.


I'm Cheryl Corley, in for Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: Detroit marked the 40th anniversary of the city's riots last week. Today, we'll hear two men who offer differing opinions about why that city has been slow to recover.

But first, you may have witnessed a crime, but there's a code on the street -you don't talk to police or other authorities. It's called the no snitch rule. Witnesses are intimidated. They change their stories. That's what prosecutors say happened in Newark, New Jersey. They allege Reginald Rowe - a witness in a murder trial there - changed his story in court because he feared retaliation. The suspects stayed on the streets until they were implicated in another case. And prosecutors charged Mr. Rowe with perjury.

In a few moments, we'll hear from Tio Hardiman, who knows all about the no snitch code through his work with gang members in Chicago.

But with us now is Paula Dow, the Essex County prosecutor who's on the Newark case. She joins us from member station WBGO in Newark.

Thanks for joining us.

Ms. PAULA DOW (Prosecutor, Essex County, New Jersey): Thanks for having me here, Cheryl.

CORLEY: Well, Ms. Dow, tell us what happened in court first, and how do you know that Reginald Rowe was scared silent?

Ms. DOW: Well, I will tell you that the case against Mr. Rowe is going to trial sometime this fall. So we're limited in how much we can disclose about this, but the charges are as follows: He was a witness, the sole witness in a underlying homicide, had given testimony about what he saw. And relying upon that, the government went ahead in its charges against two individuals. At trial, the allegations, as set forth in the indictments, are that he changed his testimony. And because his testimony was critical to the identification of the defendants at the murder trial, the defendants were ultimately acquitted.

And we contend and have so charged him that he knowingly committed false swearing, false statements at trial, knew what he was saying was false. And as a result, it had catastrophic effects on our ability to prosecute the murder defendants. And we are now bringing charges against him in court now for false testimony.

CORLEY: And what are you trying to do by charging him with false testimony? Is this essentially to set an example, or what exactly?

Ms. DOW: It's exactly that. It's intended to send a message out that those who come in to our criminal justice system and knowingly give false and perjured testimony at trial will not just be allowed to leave their - leave the courtroom and move happily ever along. That we as a criminal justice system are dependent significantly on their testimony, and if they falsely swear and testify under oath at trial, that we'll prosecute them and make them do right in the criminal justice system.

CORLEY: Ms. Dow, from what I've read about this case, there's the suggestion, at least, that Mr. Rowe may have been scared off in some way, and that may have been the reasoning behind his change in testimony. Don't know if that's true or not. But is there anything a prosecutor can do to persuade witnesses who might fear for their lives or their family members' lives besides prosecuting them, or are your options just really limited?

Ms. DOW: No, there are some things, though there needs to be more options. Right now, we have in place in the Essex County Prosecutor's Office a witness protection program. And we offer our services when witnesses need protection and let us know that they need them. We also have had participation and cooperation with the courts to some extent in providing protective orders for information. Those are the two primary means that we have for offering protection to our witnesses.

We have recognized this as a problem. Indeed, it's a problem that's nationally affecting prosecutors' office both at the federal and state level. And our hands are tied, but we're looking for increasingly more options to protect their witnesses when they're coming to testify in our increasingly violent cases.

CORLEY: Because in these instances, you're really asking them to leave their families and their communities if they do decide to testify?

Ms. DOW: That is what happens in the witness protection program, but sometimes it's just for a limited period of time, around when they're testifying that they're not permanently removed. Some request permanent removal. If they do, we try our best to relocate them to another area. The problem is it's very costly. A lot of people simply don't want to move away from the communities and neighborhoods they've been raised in. And, you know, we have limited resources to work with in offering this type of protection to witnesses.

CORLEY: When you do have the situation as you have had in this Rowe case, have you seen as increase in witness intimidation?

Ms. DOW: We have. And it's not just a Newark or Essex County problem. It certainly is one we're seeing throughout the nation, both at the federal one and at the local level. We've had witnesses refusing to testify. We've had witnesses testifying contrary to grand jury testimony. We've had witnesses refusing to go forward because in one case, a witness said that her picture had been printed on a T-shirt with the snitch sign over it, and people were wearing it in her neighborhood here in Essex County. We've seen prosecutions fumble also at the federal level because of witnesses falsely testifying or otherwise intimidating witnesses from testifying at trial.

CORLEY: All right. Well, Paula Dow is a prosecutor in Essex County, New Jersey. And she joined us from member station WBGO in Newark. Thank you so much.

Ms. DOW: Thank you, Cheryl.

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