The Case of Vanishing Witnesses

NEW ORLEANS — When Michael Eberhardt began preparing for a triple-murder trial of an accused drug trafficker this year, the special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives packed his government credit card and hit the road.

Several days and five cities later — after stops in Arlington, Texas; Houston; San Antonio; Texarkana, Ark.; and Shreveport, La.— he completed an unusual mission: finding six key witnesses to a reign of terror inside New Orleans' Calliope public housing project.

"It took a while, but I got 'em all," Eberhardt proudly declares. One person in the group turned up in a San Antonio jail, he says.

Like virtually every facet of life here, much of the criminal justice system was washed away by the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina nearly two years ago. Judges, lawyers and criminals fled; court buildings and evidence rooms were flooded. The system is recovering slowly, but a hidden cost of rebuilding involves the expensive and tedious search for dozens of crime witnesses — many of them witnesses to slayings. Like half of the city's pre-Katrina population, they are scattered across Louisiana and much of the nation.

Most of the witnesses have no intention of returning, local police and prosecutors say. In many cases, a fear of retribution from suspects has made witnesses reluctant to make their whereabouts known.

Since last year, criminal charges against more than 3,000 felony suspects have been dropped because of storm-related problems, including damaged evidence and unavailable witnesses.

Some cases have become so shaky to prosecute that officials don't agree on how to proceed. On July 12, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti said he was launching a review of Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan's actions after murder charges were dismissed against a man implicated in five killings. The district attorney said a key witness in the June 2006 case could not be found.

Within hours of Jordan's decision, New Orleans police located the witness in Baton Rouge, prompting Mayor Ray Nagin to call on Foti to conduct the review.

"This failure to follow through encourages lawlessness and leads law-abiding citizens to feel unsafe," Nagin said in a written statement.

Jordan defended his efforts, saying his office has spent thousands of dollars to find witnesses, including $16,000 in travel expenses in a separate murder case to retrieve three people from one family scattered to another state by the storm.

Jordan asked the Justice Department for more than $1 million to assist with the added costs of finding witnesses. Included in the request is money for three "safe houses" to be located within and outside the New Orleans area to protect cooperating witnesses. Some of the money would pay for permanent relocation of those who face the most serious threats of retaliation.

Scaling Obstacles to Justice

New Orleans' situation is complicated by the massive recovery effort, but its problems rounding up crime witnesses are shared across the nation.

Congress is considering legislation to offer local governments, including New Orleans, federal money and agents to help find witnesses for ongoing cases.

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