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Witness Protection Unit Fights Plague of Intimidation

By Carol D. Leonnig
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page C04

When she began her career as a prosecutor in D.C. Superior Court in 1990, Heather Cartwright knew what motivated her most: the looks of relief on crime victims' faces when they were safe and those who had hurt them were convicted and punished.

Fifteen years later, Cartwright, 44, oversees the largest victim assistance program of any U.S. attorney's office in the country, and she is still moved by each victim's search for justice.

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There was the teenage runaway last year who was abducted by a man who brought her to Washington and lived off the money that men paid to have sex with her.

There were the dozens of passengers and families who lost loved ones when terrorists hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 in Pakistan in 1986. They traveled from more than 10 countries last year to see the sentencing of one of the lead hijackers.

And she can't forget the District residents hoping to live in peace, fed up with gang members terrorizing their neighborhoods but afraid of what would happen if they talked to police.

"To have someone who is in a neighborhood who stands up against a bully in the neighborhood, to help them get . . . out of a situation where they were afraid, that's just the ultimate," Cartwright said. "And treating victims well in a situation where they've gone through a really difficult time, there's a lot of satisfaction in that."

With a staff of 26, the Victim Witness Assistance Unit provides an array of services through three divisions.

The witness security division draws the most attention because the District's drug gangs are notorious for threatening and sometimes killing witnesses who cooperate with law enforcement. Using a network for federal grants, court fines set aside for victims and the U.S. Marshals Service programs, the division can help give a witness a permanent new identity and short-term relocation expenses and assistance.

The short-term witness security program is more typical and was conceived primarily because of witness intimidation incidents in Washington. The division can give a witness as much as $4,000 for 30 days and extend the help with the Justice Department's approval. The money can cover relocation costs, a first month's rent, cell phones, storage rental and other costs.

The division for witness advocacy provides each witness with a champion in court. Part guide, part shoulder to cry on, those in the office steer victims through the sometimes frightening experience of testifying in court and facing the person who may have assaulted them or killed a loved one. Five division staffers work on domestic abuse, four on child sexual assault, two on homicides and one on nonfatal but serious crimes. Another staff member deals with misdemeanors, 12,000 in all in D.C. Superior Court last year.

A central administration division keeps victims aware of the progress of their cases and sends out approximately 35,000 letters a year about trial dates and sentencing hearings.

Because of cases in which D.C. gang members were convicted of killing and ordering hits on witnesses against them, crime witnesses are often fearful of cooperating with prosecutors.

Some have unrealistic ideas about what the witness security division can provide. "I think sometimes people think we have bodyguards watching people 24 hours a day," Cartwright said. "Those resources just aren't there."

Cartwright said she has struggled with witnesses and victims -- especially young people -- who don't follow the rules for protection and drift back into risky situations without a trace.

"There have been a couple [of] cases where we have bent over backwards to find solutions for people. . . . We've spent quite a bit of time and money," she said.

U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Wainstein said the unit, which gets high marks from victims and prosecutors, has grown from a skeletal staff of two or three people when it started in the mid-1990s.

"That reflects the growing and appropriate recognition of victims' rights," he said. "And this office is just critical to our ability to prosecute cases effectively."

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