Senator: crack down on witness intimidation

Buffalo, NY (WIVB) – Senator Tim Kennedy wants state lawmakers to pass a bill that would elevate witness intimidation and witness tampering to Class D felonies — punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Kennedy is proposing the bill, after hearing about several recent cases of witness intimidation, a problem which, Erie County’s District Attorney says, seems to be getting worse by the day.

“It is growing in seriousness. It’s always been there, but it’s been there on an isolated basis. I’m going back 25 years of trying cases now. But it seems that in the last two years, it has really, really gotten bad,” says D.A. Frank Sedita.

Right now witness intimidation and tampering are Class E felonies. Someone who’s convicted of either crime could be sentenced to up to three or four years in jail, Kennedy says.

“Anytime that we can increase a penalty for a certain crime, it’s going to send a message that it’s not right. And we know it’s not right, but we need to make sure that the penalty fits the crime,” says Kennedy.

Sedita says he welcomes any changes to the law that can help protect witnesses. But he tells News 4, if another bill currently in the Senate passes, Kennedy’s proposal will be almost meaningless.

“What these proposed laws would call for is that the prosecution reveal the names, the phone numbers, and the residential addresses of the witnesses right after the defendant is arrested,” Sedita explains.

Currently, prosecutors don’t have to give that information to defense attorneys until just before trial.

“Obviously, that provides the witnesses with a lot of security. And even with that security, there’s been problems… But it occurs so late in the process, that we can handle it,” says Sedita.

He worries that will change, if prosecutors are forced to reveal the identity of witnesses so soon after arrests.

But defense attorney Terry Connors speaks in favor of the change, saying New York’s law is “behind the times.”

“It’s very very difficult for anyone, experienced lawyer or novice lawyer, to hear the name of a witness called, placed on the witness stand, and then to work up a cross-examination without the type of preparation that you need. It’s just not fair. It doesn’t promote a fair trial. And that’s a constitutional right,” Connors says.

But Sedita argues, releasing that information well before trial will only make it easier for suspects or their associates to scare witnesses out of testifying.

“When it comes to the prosecution of violent felony cases, I will be out of business. Because nobody will cooperate,” Sedita says. “If you know that this person’s going to be knocking at your door, or his associates are going to be knocking at your door, a week or two weeks or three weeks after he’s arrested, what is that going to do to the integrity of the criminal justice system? What is that going to do with the safety of witnesses?”

“We need to make sure that we’re putting strong laws forward that will penalize those criminals that put the safety and the well-being and the lives of these witnesses at risk,” Kennedy says.

The senator plans to introduce his bill during the 2014 legislative session.

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