A murder on Milwaukee’s north side two years ago is the jumping off point for a week-long series the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel launched Sunday on the issue of witness intimidation.
The series, The Intimidator, was produced by reporter Ashley Luthern and John Diedrich. It explores some of the common and sometimes brutal tactics employed by those trying to keep witnesses from coming forward.
"I've talked to many residents in neighborhoods in Milwaukee and there's just a constant question of weighing: Do I call the police for this offense? And if they come to my door - which a lot of people don't want them to come to their door - will that mark me for some kind of intimidation? Whether it's just comments or, frankly, we've seen things as serious as people getting their houses burned down," says Luthern.
Witness intimidation is an issue of grave importance. Threats to would-be witnesses can ultimately prove deadly and can have a chilling effect on our legal processes.
"There's a phrase in the system that says: No face, no case. And if you can keep the witnesses out of court, via over the phone and so forth, that's going to effectively undermine the system," says Diedrich.
The reporters say that while there are many ways to communicate threats to potential witnesses, one of the more common methods is actually through calls from inmates.
"Individuals end up getting locked up and one of the ways that that intimidation is communicated is over the phone, which people say, 'That's crazy... they record all the calls.' But there are ways that individuals try to elude the authorities on that," says Diedrich.
While witness intimidation can be associated with a myriad of crimes, there are specific crimes where it's more commonly used to silence people and the targets can be anyone from strangers to loved ones.
"It most often occurs in cases involving gun violence, gangs, and it really occurs a lot in domestic violence cases as well. And that's something that the district attorney's office has put a huge focus and effort on... even if they can't convict someone of domestic violence, they often are able to get them on an intimidation charge down the line," says Luthern.