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From Out There ... To On The Air: "Conspiracy Of Silence"

Last week, chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian and investigative producer Wendy Krantz aired a two-part story, "Conspiracy of Silence," on the growing trend of witness intimidation in criminal cases across the country. The story behind stories like these is often far more complex than you may have realized after watching the two three-minute segments that aired on the "Evening News." So, here's another look behind the scenes of how one story went from out there … to on the air. (You can watch parts I and II of the story by clicking on the images in the video players below and you can watch additional interview footage

.)

Krantz had been following various news reports about witness intimidation and she started hearing from various prosecutors who said that witness intimidation was becoming an impediment to prosecuting cases in their districts. She had a particularly useful connection with a public information officer at the Baltimore State Attorney's office, who had been a helpful source in the past. Krantz then began contacting more prosecutors in other major cities, all of whom reported that it was becoming a significant issue.

There are "no hard and fast statistics" when it comes to this kind of information, said Krantz. To arrive at the percentages that they cited – that "witness intimidation affects or derails up to 30% of all cases involving shootings in major U.S. cities" and "in homicide cases that number jumps to 90%, with Baltimore topping the list," Krantz spoke with various prosecutors in major cities around the country, and performed her own independent research eventually arriving at those estimates. Krantz noted that there are complications with arriving at such numbers, which is why they are estimations. The responses they got from prosecutors to arrive at those numbers "mean that witness intimidation in some form has affected cases," said Krantz, "so it could be subtle."

The next step was finding examples of cases to look at in the piece as well as witnesses who had been threatened and would be willing to share their stories. "The key was finding cases that had already been adjudicated," said Krantz, because it was far more difficult to speak with people involved in a case that was in progress or had not yet gone to trial.

With help from prosecutors, they decided to address the case of Tashiera Peterson in Part I of the story. Peterson was 10 years old when she witnessed the murder of her father in connection with a drug deal and reported as much to police. The defendant, DeAndre Whitehead, was recorded attempting to hire a cell mate to kill Peterson and her mother before the girl testified in court.

The recording thus became an important element of the story, but once they got it, the sound quality was too poor to put on the air. The prosecutor provided a transcript, which had never previously been released in its entirety, and Keteyian read a portion of it during the piece, along with graphics of the actual text.

There was another interesting piece of evidence that didn't make it into the piece -- a napkin on which Whitehead had written the Petersen's address. But the Baltimore police only had a photocopy of it, which wouldn't make for a great visual on television. Additionally, Krantz said, adding that to the piece would have required more explanation and taken up more time – which is precious when you're only working within the bounds of a few minutes.

Another element that did make it into Part II of the story was a recording of Philadelphia drug dealer Kaboni Savage discussing his plans to kill a witness and his family. It was played during a sentencing trial a day before the piece aired, so it was a matter of public record and available for CBS News to air the following evening.

The biggest challenge of the story, however, was getting people to talk, said Krantz. "It's something that's very real," she said, and the culture of fear associated with the whole issue makes it difficult to convince people to speak openly about it. "There's a feeling in the neighborhood that you don't snitch," said Krantz. The feeling is "so pervasive that to get people other than law enforcement and prosecutors to talk is very difficult."

In the case of Mia, the witness interviewed at the beginning of Part I, this was a primary concern. "Everyone's feeling was that we didn't want to jeopardize her safety," said Krantz. But Mia was committed to doing the interview, said Krantz, "I think she thought that she did the right thing [by testifying in court] and she wanted to encourage others to do the same." So, Mia's face was blurred and her voice distorted.

They were not able to get an interview with her until the case was over, so the interview ended up taking place last Tuesday – the story was set to air on Thursday – when Mia was informed of the verdict. "We wanted to show that emotion," said Krantz, especially since, as it turned out, the defendant was not convicted.

There was another witness that Krantz had planned to use, but the trial that he was set to testify for ended up as a mistrial, so they couldn't get access to him.

"It's the same thing we always face with stories like this," said Krantz. However, in this particular case, because of her connections at the Baltimore state attorney's office, "we gained a lot of access."

"In general, what makes stories like this work," said Keteyian, "are characters and actualities," referring to audio or video footage. Footage of a Baltimore police unit* dedicated to tracking down potential witnesses "was pretty compelling," said Keteyian, adding that law enforcement's "desire to inform the public that these options are available" certainly helped in terms of access. "If they didn't want it to be public, it wouldn't have happened," he said.

Keteyian and Krantz said they'd been working on this piece on and off for about two months. "These stories are not cheap," said Keteyian, "they take longer [to produce] and they're often shot with multiple cameras on multiple shooting days." But he views such "enterprising investigative work" as the "bread and butter" of the investigative unit, in addition to covering breaking news. Asked if he thought the news division was willing to invest in such work, he responded, "I know it is."

*Editor's Note: This post has been corrected from its original version, which incorrectly identified this unit as U.S. marshals. The unit was from the Baltimore Police Department.

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