DA: Witness protection in EBR a two-way street

Months before he was found beaten to death, Shaun Hartley made a wrenching decision he feared would put his life in danger: He provided Baton Rouge police a detailed, eyewitness account of a fatal shooting.

Hartley, who said he had already been threatened with violence, asked detectives for protection after identifying his former roommate, Shingo J. Edwards, as the triggerman in the January slaying of Keith Matthews.

With their case ostensibly solved and Edwards still at large, authorities scrambled on a Friday evening in March to find Hartley, 31, a place to lie low. One prosecutor used her personal credit card to cover spur-of-the-moment accommodations, while her colleagues searched for a more long-term solution to at least keep him away from his old neighborhood.

Keeping tabs on Hartley grew increasingly difficult as spring turned to summer. Authorities acknowledge they lost track of him last month, in the days before he was beaten to death by a man wielding a wooden board.

“We bent over backwards to help this guy,” District Attorney Hillar Moore III said in an interview, revealing new details about the failed efforts to protect Hartley. “We do all we can to protect and assist our victims and witnesses, but it surely requires a lot of cooperation.”

Authorities have found no evidence linking Hartley’s killing on Sept. 12 to his cooperation with police, providing crucial testimony that formed the basis for Edwards’ arrest and a murder indictment handed down in July.

But his death underscored the limitations of the little-known witness protection services offered in East Baton Rouge Parish and the challenges authorities face in relocating vulnerable witnesses for extended periods of time.

“Every trial we have, it’s a chore and a challenge to get regular people — even those that have no criminal record — to come to court and testify,” Moore said.

“It’s just not a pleasant experience, and I know they feel unsafe because of things that they hear, read and see.”

The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office has taken advantage of an obscure state program created in 2009 to help fund local protection services for witnesses like Hartley.

An early advocate of the effort, Moore serves on the state Witness Protection Services Board, a Baton Rouge-based panel that meets infrequently to approve — or reject — applications for funding and reimbursement.

“In general, witnesses who are offered this have a credible threat to their life and we need their testimony,” said Mark Dumaine, a prosecutor who serves as Moore’s chief administrative officer. “The conversation that goes on between our office and law enforcement is the credibility of the threat, and we’re going to err on the side of caution.”

Fewer than a dozen witnesses a year sign a memorandum of understanding with the District Attorney’s Office to receive the services, prosecutors said.

In exchange for relocation and basic living expenses, witnesses agree to cooperate with prosecutors and must refrain from committing any crimes.

The agreement also requires witnesses to avoid areas where they will be easily recognized and to “take all precautions necessary to keep others from learning that he or she is receiving witness protection services.”

“Our preferred situation is to move people out of state,” Dumaine said, adding local witnesses have been relocated to cities around the country. “If they won’t go out of state, then it’s elsewhere in the state of Louisiana.”

Moore said East Baton Rouge Parish is the only parish he knows of receiving funds from the state program; his office pays for witness protection expenses as needed and then applies for reimbursement.

Several officials noted, however, that New Orleans offers its own local protection services to witnesses.

“I think a lot of people aren’t aware of it,” Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said of the state program. “I’m not sure if other DAs are either not aware of it or don’t have a need for it. I haven’t heard a lot of chatter about it.”

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, the nonprofit watchdog, said he is careful to differentiate between the limited funding offered by the state and the Federal Witness Protection Program, a far more extensive program known as WITSEC that provides witnesses with new identities among other services.

“What’s available as far as witness assistance in this state, or any state, does not in any way compare with or resemble the resources the federal authorities can bring through their witness protection program,” he said.

Goyeneche and others said witness intimidation is a growing problem affecting all corners of the state. Last month, a confidential informant slated to testify in Lafourche Parish was slain on the eve of a drug trial, the first such killing of a witness District Attorney Cam Morvant said he has experienced in three decades as a prosecutor.

“This is no longer just an inner-city, big-jurisdiction type problem,” Goyeneche said. “You’re seeing prosecutors in rural parishes and smaller parishes faced with the problem of victims and witnesses being in harm’s way and being in the same neighborhoods of the individuals they are slated to testify against.”

State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, sponsored legislation creating the state witness protection program, having seen firsthand as a prosecutor how essential eyewitness testimony is to convicting violent criminals. Funding has been “a real issue” in the program’s first few years, Leger said, estimating its total allocation so far at about $250,000. The program has not received an allocation on an annual basis, he said.

“The dollars that have flowed into it have been just general fund dollars I’ve cobbled together,” Leger said, “and truthfully, the last couple of years, it’s been impossible to even add to that.”

Leger would like to find a more sustainable funding stream and supplement the program with grant dollars. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., has introduced legislation in Congress that would make intimidating witnesses a federal crime and provide grants to help fund local witness protection programs.

“I think people don’t give eyewitnesses enough credit for the courage it takes to get on the stand, look a guy in the eye who is a very violent person and tell a jury in a room full of people ‘I saw him do it, and you need to put him in jail,’ ” Leger said.

“Anything we can do to make them feel better, we’ve got to try to do.”

Witness intimidation is as old as criminal trials, and Baton Rouge has seen a steady number of tampering cases over the past five years, according to the Clerk of Court’s Office. But Moore said the problem came to a head after the gruesome 2007 killing of Jason Fourmy, a man who was beaten for hours but was still alive when his body was set on fire. His remains were discovered in a wooded area on Gayosa Street.

Three witnesses in the case were fatally shot, prompting prosecutors to reduce — and ultimately drop — murder charges against Denako and Dearius Duheart and Andrea Williams.

“We never could link their killings to that murder,” Moore said, “but there were suspicions about it.”

In many cases, prosecutors have difficulty persuading witnesses to put their lives on hold for weeks or months at a time. Some reject witness protection services.

Moore said Hartley proved exceedingly difficult to keep in touch with as he returned to prostituting.

He continually ran afoul of the agreement he signed to receive witness protection, authorities said, including seeing clients in a room the District Attorney’s Office had rented for him.

“He’s got people coming in and out,” said Kirsten Bowers, a victim assistance coordinator in Moore’s office. “That’s one of the main rules that we have: People can’t know you’re here because you’re just going to end up in a situation you’re trying to get away from.

“Eventually, he just went down his same path.”

When Hartley was arrested over the summer after missing court, he told a number of people the date he expected to get out of Parish Prison. A week after his release, he was found beaten to death in an abandoned home on Wenonah Street.

Hartley’s aunt, Juanita Bates-Washington, said last week she has not accepted that Hartley’s death was unrelated to his cooperation with police in the Matthews slaying. Jeremy Brown, 28, has been booked with second-degree murder in his death, accused of arguing with him before delivering the fatal blows.

Bates-Washington said she is disturbed authorities did not notify her family about Hartley’s safety concerns and his status in witness protection.

According to Moore, Hartley told officials he had no family in the area, a claim Bates-Washington said could have been easily refuted.

To underscore that point, she said, she included a long list of his Louisiana relatives in Hartley’s obituary.

“They could have Googled and found some of his family,” she said. “Somebody in the family should have known. You don’t give someone who you already feel lives a lifestyle of the streets a couple of bucks and stick him in a hotel.”