The Case of Vanishing Witnesses

"This is an extremely urgent situation," says Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, a sponsor of the proposal. He introduced it this year because of repeated episodes of witness intimidation in his district, which includes Baltimore. "If you don't have witnesses, the chances of success (in court) decline substantially," he says.

Last month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, suggested that the "growing crisis of violent crime" in New Orleans stemmed from an array of institutional breakdowns, including "reluctance of witnesses to come forward." Leahy said only one of the 160 homicides in New Orleans last year resulted in a conviction.

The district attorney's spokesman, Dalton Savwoir, says he believes Leahy has misrepresented the murder prosecution effort. He says four murder trials were conducted last year, resulting in three convictions. He could not say whether any of those crimes involved murders committed in 2006.

Since Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005, the system's dysfunction has been magnified in the daily struggle to produce witnesses, defendants, defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges required to stage trials.

New Orleans police detective Ray Jones describes the pool of available and willing witnesses as if they were an endangered species.

"First, you have to find them," Jones, 29, says while patrolling the city's heavily damaged 9th Ward.

In neighborhoods where drug trafficking is rampant, Jones says, dealers intimidate residents with threats of violence to discourage them from cooperating with police.

"Before you know it, the case falls apart, and the defendant is released," the detective says.

The cumulative effect of the system's problems, New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley says, has contributed to the perception that "criminals do not fear our criminal justice system."

The Witness Roundup

On June 17, 2005, when a New Orleans federal judge set a trial date for October for a defendant in a murder and drug-trafficking case, everything was falling into place for the prosecution.

ATF Special Agent Eberhardt and his law enforcement colleagues had spent months building the triple-murder case, cultivating sources whose evidence, they hoped, would win a death sentence or put the defendant away for good.

Then Came Katrina

The Calliope housing project was devastated. Most of its residents — including at least six of the government's witnesses — evacuated.

The murder trial was rescheduled from October 2005 to September 2006, then to March 2007 and finally to October 2007, two years after the initial trial date. Eberhardt declined to name the defendant because he is not authorized to comment on specific defendants involved in ongoing investigations.

Each new trial date set in motion a period of preparation that eventually took Eberhardt on his midwinter tour of the Southwest.

In San Antonio, Eberhardt arrived at an apartment complex at 5 a.m. one day in January, so he wouldn't miss his target: a middle-aged woman and recovering heroin addict. Before Katrina, she had spent weeks being interviewed by federal agents preparing for trial.

Calling out to her from the courtyard, Eberhardt shouted his name and waited. "The only Eberhardt I know is in New Orleans," the woman answered.

"She went outside and looked over the balcony and saw that it really was me," Eberhardt says.

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