Do Witness Protection Programs Really Protect?

Nancy Burdell was sitting in a car parked near a San Francisco public-housing development two years ago when shots were fired into the vehicle. Burdell was wounded. Her ex-boyfriend and their young son were both killed.

The man Burdell saw fire the gun was someone she knew from the neighborhood. She wanted to help convict him, but she was afraid that cooperating with the authorities would be dangerous.

Fourteen states have witness protection programs that are supposed to help people like Burdell. But the phrase "witness protection" is a misnomer — the programs don't literally protect anyone. There's no round-the-clock surveillance, and no fancy safe house; witnesses are simply moved out of the place where the crime occurred into a safer location. Now, states are faced with trying to make the programs more attractive.

'Like a Caged Animal'

Burdell entered San Francisco County's witness protection program. She adopted the name Nancy Burdell and moved to an undisclosed city somewhere in the Bay Area. The program paid her moving costs and for basic necessities like food and rent. But as part of the deal, she gave up the only life she knew.

"Being in this program is hard because you're isolated," Burdell says. "You can't see your family. You have to cut loose your friends. You basically feel like a caged animal."

And despite the isolation, Burdell says she still doesn't feel safe. Her decision to cooperate divided her old neighborhood, where talking to the police is called "snitching."

At the sentencing hearing for the man convicted of killing her son, Burdell testified that she is still unable to relax.

"I feel my life is still in danger," she said. "I will always have to look over my shoulder."

Burdell's fear is well founded. Last year, a 22-year-old man in San Francisco's witness protection program was shot to death after ignoring prosecutors' warnings to stay out of the city.

Improving Protection

Officials say persuading witnesses to join the program can be a challenge. In the past two years, at least three men whose testimony helped bring convictions in gang-related murders in San Bernardino County were themselves killed after refusing the county's help.

San Bernardino's District Attorney, Michael Ramos, says one of the victims knew his life was in danger but refused efforts to relocate him. The 18-year-old was beaten, kidnapped and murdered. He was shot 25 times and dumped in a ravine.

Ramos and San Francisco's District Attorney, Kamala Harris, are leading an effort to make witness protection services more attractive. In California, next year's budget will double funding for witness protection to more than $6 million.

Among the problems, Harris says, is that the current program ends for witnesses three months after a convicted criminal is sentenced. After that, the witnesses are basically on their own. Harris believes that's part of the reason witnesses are reluctant to cooperate.

"They feel they're just being used," she says, "that we just chew them up and spit them out."

Harris also notes that many witnesses come from poor inner-city neighborhoods. She believes the witness protection program should do more than just relocate participants; it should help them get their high school diploma or job training as they await trial.

Speaking Up

Nancy Burdell is now getting ready to leave the witness protection program. Earlier this year, she gave birth to twins. She's excited about being a mother again, but she's nervous about the future.

It's rare for people in a witness protection program to talk to the media, but Burdell hopes to encourage others who have information about crimes to have the courage to speak up.

Scott Shafer reports from member station KQED in San Francisco.

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