Lehigh Valley

Prosecutors say their hands are tied when busting gang members

Prosecutors say hands tied when busting gang members

Prosecutors say they're having to drop more criminal cases because gang members are intimidating witnesses, but there are few options to tackle the problem.

When a teenager was shot at an Allentown party in June, police said he pointed the finger at Anthony Holmes, 22, a known gang member with a long rap sheet.

But at Holmes' preliminary hearing Thursday, the teen changed his tune. Prosecutors dropped the charges and Holmes walked away a free man.

"No D.A. wants to drop charges," said Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli who was not part of this case.

Morganelli said gang members often intimidate witnesses.

"The only witnesses are the fellow gang members or the people associated with the gang," he said.

It recently happened in another high-profile case. When Charles Washington faced a judge for an April killing in Allentown, his friend ended up arrested. Prosecutors have charged him with snapping cell phone pictures of a 14 year-old witness.

Morganelli tried one unusual tactic to combat intimidation a few years ago.

"We tried to charge the victim-witness with false report to law enforcement officer," he said. "We said, 'Oh, now you're changing your stories, so you don't want to testify for us against the shooter, we're going to charge you with false reports.' It didn't work. The judges threw these cases out on us."

A 2006 Justice Department report (http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Publications/e07063407.pdf ) offers other solutions. It urges police to do more to conceal witnesses' identities. including letting witnesses testify by closed-circuit television. It also suggests giving witnesses silent alarms to alert police of threats. In extreme cases, the DOJ even recommends relocating witnesses out of the area. Some cities like New York and Chicago have done this on a limited basis, although those solutions are expensive and can take a lot of extra manpower.

Plus, the U.S. Constitution gives defendants a right to face their accusers in court. There have been mixed court rulings on whether witnesses' faces can be concealed in a court proceeding.

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