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If you've watched just about any mob movie in the last 30 years or so, you've heard the phrase "witness protection program." It either involves a former gangster going in (like the end of Goodfellas) or comically navigating his new life (like My Blue Heaven). There are all kinds of conditions like changing names and moving to the suburbs, and always the risk of whomever the gangster is testifying against hunting them down.
But how does witness protection actually work? Here's a look.
The idea behind witness protection programs is to encourage people with knowledge of crimes and criminal enterprises, but fearful of their personal safety, to testify. While states -- and even some cities -- have or are starting to implement their own witness protection plans, the program most think of when they hear "witness protection" is the U.S. Marshals Service's Witness Security Program, or WITSEC.
Begun in 1970 under the Organized Crime Control Act, the law allows the Marshals Service, at the behest of the U.S. Attorney's Office, to provide witnesses a new Social Security number and other identifying documents in order to establish a new identity. The program can also cover immediate family or a person closely associated with the witness and including housing, relocation costs, basic living expenses, employment assistance, and other services.
The U.S. Marshals website says the program has protected, relocated, and provided new identities to over 8,600 witnesses and 9,900 family members since its inception, and claims "No Witness Security Program participant, following program guidelines, has been harmed or killed while under the active protection of the U.S. Marshals Service."
Of course, not every witness in a criminal case is eligible for protection. The Justice Department requires extensive information for each WITSEC application, including witness ID, the significance of the case, the expected testimony, and the threat to the witness, and looks at four factors when decided on whether to grant witness protection:
If you've witnessed a crime and are concerned for your safety or that of a loved one, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss your options.