By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Tim Twining, one of the four assistant district attorneys assigned to the unit, says he makes a point of prosecuting retaliation cases. "I take them very seriously," he says. "You have to."
Witness intimidation is so prolific in gang cases that Denver judges say they see it right in the courtroom. "During one trial, I had to expel a couple of observers who were flashing gang signs at a witness while the witness was on the stand testifying," says Denver District Court Judge Paul A. Markson Jr.
During another hearing, a female witness went into the bathroom and found gang graffiti written on the mirror. "I had to send the bailiff in there to wipe the graffiti off," Markson notes. "The bailiff went in before every recess to check after that."
Markson also has found graffiti carved into the wooden benches where witnesses wait before they testify in court.
Curtis played dead after being shot twice in the head and listened as his friends were murdered.
"I think that chilled all the witnesses in Denver when that happened," Cooper says. "You want to tell yourself that's an isolated case. You want to tell yourself it couldn't happen to you."
What Cooper does tell witnesses is that the Curtis case is not common. "I've been doing this for eight years and, while there have been threats, I've never had a witness harmed," he says. "And I work in the gang unit, where witness intimidation happens all the time."
Curtis was the star witness at a recent hearing for a new bill sponsored by state senator Ed Perlmutter, which proposes that the state set up a $1 million witness-protection program.
The measure is designed to help any witness experiencing threats, but it's in direct response to gang crimes, Perlmutter says. "While intimidation of witnesses has always been around, it's become more and more prevalent with the upsurge of gangs," he explains. "Gangs have a major role in the need for this bill."
The money would be used to help fund witness relocations or hire extra security for trials, says Representative Jeanne Adkins, the bill's co-sponsor. The attorney general, the head of the state's public safety department and the director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council would determine who would be eligible to receive the funds.
"I think if the justice system is to provide justice, then it needs the people who make it work," she adds. "The prosecution is not going to be able to make a case without witnesses. If they don't come forward because they feel they're in danger, then the system doesn't work."
Perlmutter, a Democrat who says he got the idea from Governor Roy Romer's crime agenda, found that only about a dozen states have statutes dealing with witness protection. "There's not a lot out there," he notes.
Both lawmakers warn that this proposed program is much more limited than the federal witness-protection program. "It's not establishing new identities and the things you see in television scripts," Adkins says.
She's also sponsoring a bill that addresses the issue of witness privacy, which Ritter helped draft. It would give prosecutors twenty days after filing a case to submit witnesses' names. "This gives them time to go into court and make a case that a witness is or has the potential to be in danger," Adkins says.
Currently, prosecutors must file a case, including the presentation of witness information, within 72 hours of an arrest. "We're really on a timeline," Ritter says. "That doesn't give us the ability to give consideration to witness-privacy issues."
As things now stand, anyone who wants to know who's slated to testify in an upcoming case can simply make a trip to the courthouse and look at the file. And although Nielsen says he doesn't know how the men who threatened him learned his name, it appears in the court record, along with his phone number and former business address.
Bishop's trial is just a month away.
The man who spotted the BMW's license plate doesn't expect that he'll be called to the stand. He says he hasn't been threatened in connection with the case--but he also asks that his name not appear in print.
Chavez-Holguin may be called, but he's told police that he didn't really see anything.
Bishop has not given a statement, according to Trujillo, much less named names. It bothers Nielsen that the shooter has never been identified. "Someone out there has a lot to lose if this guy starts talking," he says of Bishop.
But for now, Nielsen remains the star witness--and the only one mentioned in the court files.
His current state of mind has everything to do with his experience as a crime victim, he explains. "It gave me an inner strength," he says of the assault five years ago. "Quite frankly, after something like that happens to you, there's not much else they can do to you. I think people can react to being a victim one of two ways: always be a victim, or never be a victim again."