INDIANAPOLIS — The city of Indianapolis spent $200,000 in 2022 to help witnesses keep themselves and their families safe before they testify in court.
In some cases, the money helped move people out of a dangerous place or installed a home-security system. It also paid for car repairs and bus passes.
The money comes from the Victim Witness Assistance Program, which launched in 2018. The goal of that program is to help keep witnesses safe and lower some of the barriers that might keep them from cooperating with a police investigation.
City officials have used the funds to move homeless witnesses into temporary housing. It is also used to pay for food, rent, clothing, diapers, pet food and anything else that helps a witness who may be putting their own safety and security on the line by agreeing to speak up and bring a criminal to justice.
And in a county that has seen a record number of homicides each year for three of the past four years, officials say this program is one key to holding people accountable and stemming the violence.
"We understand that there's no-snitch code, right?" Indianapolis resident Melissa Jude said. "But for some of these cases, you may have one person that just can't live with themselves because of what they've done. or what they orchestrated or witnessed that may actually want to come forth.
"The question always is, 'what are you going to do to protect me if I do come forth so you can at least solve some of these homicides?"
Melissa Jude understands the need for a program that helps witnesses who fear retaliation for cooperating with police. Her 20-year-old son Chandler Bussey was killed near Arsenal Park on the north side on June 12, 2020.
"Our family definitely hurts to this day, so much over his loss," Jude said. "He was definitely, you know, a huge part of keeping us all together."
Jude is one of the founders of Parents Forever for Justice, a support and advocacy group for people who have lost loved ones to violence. A program that helps witnesses can only help solve crimes and bring criminals to justice, she said.
The county launched its Victim Witness Assistance Program, V-WAP for short, in 2018.
The program doesn’t give a witness a new identity. It won't cover everything a witness might need, but those involved say the money is enough to help people through a tough patch often brought on because they have cooperated with investigators.
“It's called assistance program because it's just an assist,” Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears said. “If you have more resources, you can offer more to the people that we come into contact with each and every single day.”
Officials say the program appears to have made an impact.
"It's directly impacted the prosecutor's office and our ability to move forward with with prosecutions," Mears said,.
According to Mears’ office, there were 35 murder trials that went to verdict in 2015 and 22 dismissals of murder cases.
In 2019, there were 35 murder trials that went to verdict and just two dismissals.
“I can't say that we saw more witnesses come forward,” said Carlette Duffy, deputy director of programs and management for the Office of Public Health and Safety. “Each year, the funding has been utilized more and more and there are more and more families or individuals that are being served, because they're willing to stand up to crime and violence in the community.”
Here's how some of the money's been spent:
- On the night before Darrin Banks went to trial in 2019 for spraying bullets into a house that injured a 19-year-old woman and killed 1-year-old Malaysia Robson, prosecutors learned that there had been a credible threat on the life of one of the witnesses. Mears’ office tapped into witness assistance funds and got that witness into a hotel room. Banks was sentenced to 53 years in prison.
- In another case, a victim testified against a man convicted of armed robbery, neglect of a dependent and other crimes in 2018. That victim’s safety had been threatened shortly before the sentencing hearing, so prosecutors moved quickly to set the person up in a hotel. The suspect, Paris Duncan, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
"Those are the types of things that we're able to provide to people that provide that peace of mind, and again, have resulted in us to be able to convict a number of people violent crimes," Mears said.
Indianapolis saw 271 homicides in 2021. Last year, Marion County saw 226 homicides. About two-out-of-three homicides in Indianapolis remain unsolved.
City-County Councilor Leroy Robinson, who chairs the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee, said the witness assistance money helps but there are deep problems behind the recent spike in violence.
"The program alone won't do it," Robinson said. "We need a cultural shift in the mentality and the thinking of many in our community who think that snitching is wrong. It's only snitching if you were involved. If you're not involved in the crime, you're not snitching."
The death of Jude's son Chandler Bussey remains unsolved. She said the city is not doing enough to let people know there is help for witnesses who testify.
"Even if it's just with one case," Jude said, "if we get one case solved through the program, it's it's done what it was supposed to do."
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at email@example.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.
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