How Witness Protection Works


A protected witness guarded by U.S. Marshals
A protected witness guarded by U.S. Marshals
Photo courtesy

The entire ­purpose of the witness protection program is to keep the witnesses safe so that they can testify at trials that could convict members of organized crime, gangs or terrorist networks. Perhaps the riskiest part of the process is when the witness returns to testify.

A great number of precautions are taken, and security is maximized at this time. In his book, Shur describes bringing witnesses in mail trucks, helicopters and fishing boats. In one instance, an armored car was sent with a full police escort as a decoy while former Mafia member Joseph Barboza was snuck in through a side door of the courthouse. At trial, even witnesses no longer in the program are given protection if they are testifying in cases for which the witness originally entered the program.

Taking such drastic measures to protect witnesses has paid off for prosecutors. Since the program's inception in 1970, it has achieved an overall conviction rate of 89 percent as a result of protected witness testimony, and more than 10,000 criminals have been convicted, according to the Marshals Service.

All requests for a witness's appearance must come through the Marshals Service or OEO with at least 10 days' notice. Prosecutors and law enforcement agents are required to conduct conferences or interviews of relocated witnesses at neutral sites designated by the Marshals Service. For prisoner-witnesses, conferences are conducted at the prisoner's assigned federal prison.

Once the trial is over, it is time for the witness and his family to enter their new life. In the next section, we'll look at how things can change for witnesses once they are relocated. ­