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An Inside Look At Witness Protection

An old mobster once gave Joseph Paonessa some advice that, if a bit chilling, has served him well during his many years working in the federal witness protection program.

"He said, 'Kid, three people can keep a secret when two of them are dead,"' said Paonessa, a senior official in the U.S. Marshals Service.

When managing a program that has relocated and provided new identities to 18,000 people, keeping a tight lid on information is more than a fond wish.

So it was all the more surprising when the Marshals Service invited a few reporters to its suburban Virginia headquarters on Monday for the start of an international conference on witness protection programs.

Commonsense tips were the order of the day, at least in the portion of the meeting reporters were allowed to attend.

One important rule: Don't find a counterfeiter a job in a printing plant, said Gerald Shur. A retired federal prosecutor, Shur is widely credited with creating the witness protection program to overcome the reluctance of witnesses to testify in Mafia trials.

When obtaining a legal name change for someone with a new identity, ask a judge to do it in secret and dispense with the requirement that the new name be published in a newspaper's legal notices.

Remember that spouses and children are often part of the deal.

One teenager asked his father, a protected witness, for a new car. When the father refused, Shur said, the teenager replied, "I'm going to go out and tell everybody who you are."

Those issues might not be foremost in the minds of the international officials attending the weeklong meeting. The focus is on witnesses from one country who are relocated to another country after they testify, a practice officials said is sometimes necessary in smaller countries.

Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Australia and Canada were among more than a dozen countries represented by officials who provide security for witnesses who testify mainly in organized crime and war crimes trials.

The goals are similar wherever witness protection programs exist: Try to ensure that a witness can provide key testimony without being harmed or intimidated.

The Marshals brag that no one who has followed the rules has been killed or harmed since the U.S. program was established in 1970.

Roughly 8,000 witnesses — most of them criminals — and 10,000 family members have been given new identities. The program costs taxpayers $50 million a year, said Kearn Knowles, who is retiring this week as the program's director.

The conviction rate in cases in which those witnesses testified is 90 percent, said Maureen Killion, director of the Justice Department office that oversees witness security.

But there have been problems. Almost all the witnesses are themselves criminals — and some find it hard to stay clean, Paonessa said.

Nearly one in five protected witnesses have been charged with new crimes, according to a study cited by the Marshals.

Other people have quit the program, against the advice of authorities, sometimes with tragic results. Brenda Paz, a former gang member who had been helping with a federal murder case against her former boyfriend, died of multiple stab wounds in 2003, two months after she gave up federal protection. Two members of the MS-13 gang in Northern Virginia were convicted of killing her, while two others, including the ex-boyfriend, were acquitted.

A Justice Department inspector general's report last year warned that witness safety could be compromised if the government doesn't reverse a steady drop in marshals assigned to the program.

Under new Director John Clark, the Marshals Service is trying to raise its public profile, an effort designed to win more money from Congress once lawmakers and the public have a better idea of what the service does.

The rare look inside the witness protection program was a part of that effort.

The Marshals who look after protected witnesses are, it turns out, part social worker, minister, lawyer and marriage counselor.

One witness persuaded the government to accept 20 family members into the program with him, after demonstrating that they were at risk of harm, Shur said.

Another witness won permission to include his wife, mistress and mother. The latter two lived together, Shur said, and everyone was OK with that arrangement.

But there was one line the government would not cross: One witness wanted to relocate with his mistress, but not his wife.

By Mark Sherman

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