Is Offering Immunity from Prosecution the Only Way to Solve Some Crimes?
Verkaik, Robert, The Independent (London, England)
The big question
Why are we asking this now?
Police investigating the murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool encountered a wall of silence. For months, the investigation stalled as officers tried to persuade people to come forward to say what they knew. In the end, a 17-year-old member of the gang responsible for killing Rhys agreed to become an informant and key prosecution witness referred to in court as Boy X. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was originally going to charge him with firearms offences. Instead, it offered him immunity from prosecution provided he met conditions including a requirement to attend court and give a truthful account. He accepted those terms and entered into an immunity agreement. Soon after this, the CPS decided there was sufficient evidence to charge Sean Mercer with murder.
Why don't police force witnesses to help them convict criminals?
Police officers can arrest people for obstructing their inquiries, withholding information or perverting the course of justice. But this will not necessarily help in getting a witness to testify in court. Faced with the prospect of being identified as an informant, many witnesses choose to remain silent. They know that defendants, in the course of the pre-trial process, will be told the names of witnesses giving evidence against them. Once the name is out, it may be easy for a suspect to intimidate a witness. Cases sometimes collapse after a chief witness changes their mind in mid- trial and refuses to testify. The prosecution may be convinced that the witness has been "nobbled" - but the law prevents the jury being told of their suspicions.
So what are the alternatives?
It is a principle in English law that those who turn Queen's evidence may escape prosecution or be given lenient sentences. Boy X was originally a suspect in the murder inquiry but, in a deal brokered by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, he was granted immunity from prosecution. Witnesses who refuse to give evidence because they fear for their own safety can also benefit from promises of protection offered by the CPS. Protection schemes are run by different police forces. In extreme cases, vulnerable witnesses can be moved to new addresses and given new identities. For some this protection can last for a lifetime. In the Rhys Jones case, Boy X will start a new life away from the Liverpool suburb of Croxteth in which the convicted gang members and their families live.
Do other countries do the same?
America and Italy have led the way in immunity and witness protection programmes. In the US, prosecutors have relied since 1970 on the Organised Crime Control Act to help fight the Mob. The law has origins in the 1871 Civil Rights Act designed to protect people testifying against Ku Klux Klan members. In Italy, similar deals are offered to Mafia informants.
How successful is this in practice in Britain?
Cases in which witnesses are given protection often end in convictions. Juries tend to be impressed by people who perform a public duty in the face of threats to their safety and so give their evidence due weight. But a recent House of Lords ruling made it clear that the practice of offering anonymity to witnesses had become far too widespread and deprived defendants of their right to know who their accusers were. The police and CPS have had to revise the offer of anonymity in the light of this ruling.
Who has previously taken part in the scheme?
Danielle Cable has been a protected witness since 1998, when she helped to identity a known underworld boss, Kenneth Noye, as the man responsible for stabbing to death her boyfriend, Stephen Cameron, in a road-rage incident on the M25 at Swanley, Kent. In a rare interview about her life, she told how she had had to virtually cease communicating with her family and friends. …