Witness protection

The Senate should give swift consideration to a bill by Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) to crack down on rampant witness intimidation.

Specter’s bill would make it a federal crime to threaten, harm, or kill a witness in a local criminal case. It would impose maximum penalties of 20 to 30 years in prison.

The Inquirer’s recent series on Philadelphia’s broken system of criminal justice detailed how a culture of witness intimidation allows alleged perpetrators to go free. The problem goes beyond a pervasive attitude of “Stop Snitchin’,” including a highly publicized case of murder to silence witnesses.

Local authorities have tried to combat this disease, without much success. Between 2006 and 2008, city prosecutors filed witness-intimidation charges against about 1,000 people. But they secured convictions in only about 25 percent of those cases.

The district attorney and police face a never-ending challenge. To prosecute a murder case, for example, authorities might need to file intimidation charges against someone who’s threatening a key witness. But prosecuting a thug for intimidating a witness raises the same hurdles as the original murder case — a witness who won’t testify for fear of retaliation.

In the past decade in Philadelphia, at least 13 witnesses or their family members have been killed. And the problem pervades a system with one of the lowest conviction rates in the nation.

Specter’s legislation would allow the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate and charge people who intimidate witnesses in local cases. Bringing the weight of federal authorities into selected cases could give witnesses some reassurance that their concerns are being taken seriously.

Federal court rulings have allowed such intervention only in cases that can be linked to interstate commerce, suggesting that use of this proposed law would be limited. But it would give prosecutors another tool to combat this real and persistent problem that undermines justice in this city and others.