You’ve probably heard of the witness protection program, which the protects important witnesses who testify in big cases, sometimes giving them new identities after trial. You’ve probably even seen it portrayed in various movies and TV shows. But how much of what you’ve seen and heard is really true?
Does the witness protection program really deliver the Club Med lifestyle like in the movies? Does it even successfully protect witnesses? Do the witnesses really go on to live clean, crime-free lives?
We decided to dig a bit deeper into federal and state witness protection programs in America. We think you’ll be shocked at just how different reality is from the Hollywood version.
Quick Facts about Witness Protection
- Over 7,500 witnesses and 9,500 families have entered the federal program
- 14 states have their own local witness protection programs
- Over 10,000 criminals have been convicted thanks to federal protected witnesses
Witness Security Program from the U.S. Marshals Service
Since 1971, the U.S. Marshals Service has been providing for the security and well-being of government witnesses and their immediate dependents. To qualify for witness protection, the witness and dependents lives must truly be in danger as a result of their testimony.
If the witness moves forward and provides the testimony against the major criminal, he (or she) and his family typically received new identities with authentic documentation. Housing, basic living expenses, medical care, and employment assistance are also provided to those in the program.
While those in the program are still in a high-threat environment, they are afforded 24-hour protection from the U.S. Marshals. Common high-threat environments include pre-trial conferences, testimonials, and other court appearances.
According to their website, “No Witness Security Program participant, who followed security guidelines, has been harmed while under the active protection of the U.S. Marshals.”
Notice the wording here though: “who followed security guidelines”…“while under the active protection”. This indicates there has been serious harm to those who either failed to exactly follow the U.S. Marshals’ instructions or who were in their new life and not under 24-hour surveillance.
What about Criminal Witnesses?
The witness protection program doesn’t just protect innocent victims. The government has often used the program to protect smaller criminals who help convict the bigger criminals. But is it really safe to give these criminals a free pass? Consider these facts from a 1996 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story:
- Criminals protected under witness security have gone on to commit scores of violent crimes, including at least 20 murders
- Many criminals are able to retain funds they acquired during their life of crime
- The criminals’ new neighbors know nothing about their past (and present) lives of crime
State Witness Protection Programs Not So Safe
Fourteen states have some version of their own witness protection program. The budget and capabilities of state programs are much lower than the federal program, and as a result, they’ve proven to be anything but safe.
Here are just a few cases of the ineffectiveness of state protection:
- In Colorado, at least 16 witnesses and associates have been murdered under the state’s protection program.
- Two San Francisco witnesses have been shot down while under protection
- An LAPD detective recently faced embezzlement charges for stealing LA witness protection funds
Witness Protection Myths
What are some of the lies Hollywood tells about the witness protection program?
- Myth: Witnesses must fake their death—We’ve all heard about how those in the witness protection program fake their deaths before moving onto their new lives. This isn’t true. Witnesses simply give their testimony, receive new identities, move to a new location, and cutoff all contact with old friends and extended family.
- Myth: Witnesses change their appearance—Wrong again. Witnesses change their names, but they don’t have to go around wearing wigs and sunglasses or get plastic surgery.
- Myth: Witness protection is like being on vacation: Untrue. Witnesses do have their housing and basic expenses covered, but they’re trained to gain employment and become self-sufficient.