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Fourteen states have their own witness protection programs. But the term witness protection is something of a misnomer. These programs don't literally protect anyone. There's no round-the-clock surveillance or safe houses. Witnesses are simply moved out of the place where the crime occurred into a safer location.
From member station KQED in San Francisco, Scott Shafer tells us about California's program and one of its participants.
SCOTT SHAFER: 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. She was wounded. Her ex-boyfriend and their young son were both killed.
Ms. NANCY BURDELL (Participant, San Francisco Witness Protection Program) He was a two-year-old beautiful child, innocent child. I mean, I - he was very friendly. He loved to talk and meet people. He loved smiling. Most of all, he loved being with his mother. He was like my little shadow.
SHAFER: Burdell wanted to help convict the man she saw fire the gun, someone she knew from the neighborhood. But she feared that cooperating with authorities could be dangerous. So she entered San Francisco County's witness protection program. She adopted a new name and moved to an undisclosed city somewhere in the Bay Area. The program paid her moving costs and basic necessities like food and rent. But as part of the deal, she gave up the only life she knew.
BURDELL: Being in this program is hard because you're - you know, you're isolated. You can't see your family, you have to cut loose your friends and, you know, you basically feel like a caged animal. You can't do what you want to do, you know.
SHAFER: Burdell says her decision to testify divided her old neighborhood where talking to cops is called snitching.
BURDELL: You know a lot of people say things to try to get underneath my skin, you know. But I don't let it get to me, you know. I don't let it discourage me from coming to court and doing what I have to do.
SHAFER: That tension was starkly evident at the recent sentencing hearing for Joseph Stevens, the man Burdell helped convict of killing her son. During the hearing, a shouting match broke out between the grandmother of the two-year-old victim and the killer's mother.
SIEGEL: Don't tell me I didn't give a damn about my son.
Unidentified Woman #2: You're so obsessed with (unintelligible)...
SHAFER: After the outburst, Nancy Burdell walks to the microphone and describes how her life has changed since the killings.
BURDELL: I have suffered tremendously through the past 20 months, and still have a lot of pain. I know justice has been served. But it's still hard for me to feel relaxed because I still don't feel safe. I feel my life is still in danger. I will always have to look over my shoulder.
SHAFER: 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. What's more, officials say, convincing witnesses to join the relocation program in the first place can be a challenge.
In San Bernardino County over the past two years, at least three men, whose testimony help bring convictions in gang-related murders, 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.
MICHAEL RAMOS: But, like, in many of these cases, he came back to the neighborhood but at the same time, he knew of the threat. In fact, he slept - there was one indication that he slept with his tennis shoes on in case they came to get him.
SHAFER: And they did come to get him. The 18-year-old man was beaten, kidnapped and murdered, shot 25 times and dumped in a ravine.
Ramos and San Francisco's District Attorney Kamala Harris are leading an effort to avoid tragedies like that in the future by making witness protection services more attractive. For example, D.A. Harris says the program currently ends for witnesses three months after a convicted criminal is sentenced. After that, they're basically on their own.
KAMALA HARRIS: Part of the dynamic that makes witnesses reluctant to cooperate with us and with law enforcement is they feel that they are just being used as a commodity, that we just chew them up and spit them out.
SHAFER: Harris points out that many witnesses come from poor inner-city neighborhoods. She believes the witness protection program should do more than just relocate participants - like helping them get their high school diploma or job training as they await trial. And help is on the way.
The new state budget doubles funding for witness protection to more than $6 million.
As for Nancy Burdell, she's getting ready to leave the witness protection program. Earlier this year, she gave birth to twins. She's excited about being a mom again, but she's nervous about the future.
BURDELL: I'm just trying to take care of them in the best way I can, be a good mother to them. That's all I can do. That's all I look forward to. Without them, I don't know where I would be today, where I will be tomorrow.
SHAFER: It's rare that people in a witness protection program talk to the media, but Burdell is hoping to encourage others who have information about crimes to have the courage to speak up.
For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.
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