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A real witness protection program could be life-saver in justice system

Testifying before grjury Kimberly Harris identified Demarius Bridges as man who killed her boyfriend. Bridges’ brother another man are charged

Testifying before a grand jury, Kimberly Harris identified Demarius Bridges as the man who killed her boyfriend. Bridges’ brother and another man are charged with murdering Harris.

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Updated: October 26, 2012 2:22PM

I don’t suspect many Chicagoans mourned the loss of Kimberly Harris, a 26-year-old who died last April in a barrage of bullets.

Frankly, the victim was nothing like 14-year-old Dajae Coleman of Evanston who was shot to death on Saturday night while walking home from a party.

There’s no reason to believe there was a motive for the shooting other than the senseless violence that has killed too many other teenagers.

“He wasn’t someone who you’d think would get killed like this,” his father told reporters.

Harris, on the other hand, was someone that anyone could see would likely come to a bad end.

But the ability of police to get justice for Harris has a direct bearing on their ability to get justice in cases involving innocents like Coleman.

Here’s why: Harris had a brush with death in August 2011, when she and her boyfriend, Keith Slugg, 32, a reputed high-ranking gang member, were attacked by armed assailants while they were getting busy in a car parked in an alley in the Lawndale neighborhood.

Harris survived the shooting. Her boyfriend did not. Harris identified Demarius Bridges, 23, by name to responding officers as the gunman, and told the grand jury she had known him since they were teenagers. She was the only eyewitness.

A $700,000 bail kept Bridges off the street, which was a good thing because prosecutors had urged the judge to deny Bridges bail because Harris said she feared he would do her harm.

Two days before Harris was murdered, Terry Bridges offered to pay Harris $20,000 if she refused to testify against his brother, Demarius, according to court documents.

When Harris met up with Bridges and Tyrell Lewis on April 15, Lewis allegedly pulled out a handgun and shot her 20 times. After hearing this young woman was shot 20 times — three times in the face — who in their right mind would agree to cooperate with police?

But Harris’ wanton murder was so shocking, two witnesses positively identified Lewis and told police they saw him get into Bridge’s SUV after the shooting. For their own good, and for the good of the community, these witnesses should have access to a real witness protection program. Terry Bridges and Lewis were charged with first-degree murder.

“Unfortunately, gang members so frequently engage in witness intimidation that it is considered part of the normal gang behavioral dynamics,” John Anderson, and assistant district attorney in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, wrote in the National Gang Center Bulletin.

“Each case-specific act of violence against victims or witnesses by gangs or drug-selling groups promotes the communitywide perception that any cooperation with the criminal justice system is dangerous,” Kerry Murphy Healy wrote for a National Institute of Justice publication.

The same gun that was used to kill Slugg and wound Harris the first time was used to kill her months later, which suggests the shooters weren’t even worried about getting caught.

Last week, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reported that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart uncovered a plot to kill several witnesses in the murder trial of a man accused of killing DeAntonio Goss, 16, in 2010.

“The intimidation could be more subtle,” Dart noted. “If you have instances where a person is being openly intimidated, we would be all over them in two seconds. The reality is it is a vicious cycle. The person might feel their initial call would bring more heat, which is why we are stuck with these circles of violence,” he said.

“People are intimidated and they don’t come forward. If you don’t have witnesses, there is not a lot you can do. Unless we have a more thorough way to insulate and protect witnesses and victims, this is going to be an ongoing problem. The nature of the violence makes it a bigger problem,” Dart said.

In 1996, the Gang Crime Witness Protection Act was passed in Illinois with the goal of reducing gang-related crimes by protecting witnesses. The Act created a two-year pilot program that was administered by the Illinois State Police. An evaluation of that program by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority found most state’s attorneys offices reported “technical assistance and expense reimbursement for witness protection/relocation would be a valuable tool in combatting gang crime and would induce more persons to testify in gang-crime cases.”

Like most unfunded mandates, that program has fallen by the wayside. That doesn’t make any sense.

To get the bad guys off our streets, government needs to do a much better job protecting those who have the courage to testify against them.

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