Armed Intelligentsia member Tommy Knocker asks:
I was watching the news today and I see how witnesses to the Trayvon shooting are starting to change their story. Soooo….got to thinking…..As the cardinal rule for DGU situations is to STFU, is it necessary for eye witnesses to also STFU? Being a witness to a major crime and having your name and story circulate in the news media can be detrimental to your health. It can be detrimental to your immediate family. Nothing like having some angry guys hunting you down cause you said something in court.
While it may bring up recollections of Kitty Genovese (for those of us old enough), or being silenced by the fear of the mafia getting you or yours, I suspect that this effect may be at work in the Trayvon case now. I would like to hear what you folks think about this.
Thanks for the question, Tommy! Much of my professional career involves reading and parsing police reports, in the (often frustrated) hope of finding or creating some reasonable doubt in favor of my clients. Eyewitness reports to police, taken at or immediately after the commission of a crime, often provide the best and most actionable intelligence for apprehending and convicting the perpetrators.
Eyewitness reports to police are usually bad news for my clients, for whom less (evidence) truly is more (possibility for acquittal). In several of my own cases, including one open carry case, innocent people have avoided conviction because concerned citizens stepped forward to tell the truth about what they saw.
The rule of law is what elevates our society above the psychopath’s paradise of anarchy, and what separates the United States from the corrupt and lawless hell-holes of Mexico, Russia or Pakistan. Our system of justice, imperfect as it is, depends existentially on our commitment to let the courts administer punishment instead of claiming personal vengeance, to give truthful testimony as witnesses, and to sit in impartial judgment as jurors.
Edmond Burke is quoted (or paraphrased) as saying “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing,” and this duty extends to helping expose the perpetrators of violent crimes. Where no-one will cooperate with police, as in many inner cities (and even more desperately poor rural areas), crimes go unsolved and sociopaths are free to victimize again and again.
Like all duties, this civic duty is not absolute. Would I risk my life and my loved ones, after being threatened with retaliation by a large organized crime syndicate if I testified against a mobster? I have no idea. I might not be as brave as I think I am, especially when I’m risking other people’s lives as well as my own.
But what should you do if you witness a defensive gun use in your community? Here’s what I would do: get myself and my family to cover, or concealment if cover is not available, and have someone call 911 while maintaining situational awareness and keeping my own firearm accessible but not visible. You don’t want to have a weapon visible when the cavalry shows up at your hot LZ. When the cops show up (and once I and my family are safe) I’d tell them exactly where I’d been and exactly what I’d seen.
Calling 911 as a witness will insulate you from p0lice suspicion; cops like 911 callers, and prosecutors love to play their tapes in court while the defendants squirm. You’ll be called a Good Samaritan for making the call, and the system will treat you pretty well. Your statements to police and your testimony in court will make it more likely that the perp is brought to justice, and less likely that an innocent armed citizen will be wrongfully convicted for trying to defend his life.
But what about the risk of retaliation from the perp’s associates, family members, or political agitators? It’s impossible to predict the political fallout from any violent incident that you’re unlucky enough to witness, but I don’t think it’s a risk worth worrying about. My part of the country has experienced literally dozens of DGUs in the last year, and I’m not familiar with a single witness being threatened or intimidated.
Cooperating with law enforcement might be a bad lifestyle choice if you’re an accountant for a drug cartel, but DGUs almost always involve low-level street crime. When the perp is a mentally deranged or drugged-out street criminal, the chance of retaliation from his family or associates is next to nothing. If you are threatened, it’s time to call 911 again (and place a direct call to the prosecutor too) to tell them what happened. Trust me: they’ll take you seriously, and they’ll bring down all kinds of hell on the defendant and anyone who’s trying to help him.
Witness intimidation is a fairly serious felony in its own right in Washington State, with each instance of intimidating contact or conduct treated as a separate offense for purposes of sentencing.
The individual risks posed by cooperating as a State’s witness are very small, and the collective risk of letting the bad guys win is very real. If you have the bad fortune to witness a shootout involving the Russian mafia, the Gypsy Jokers, or the Juggalo street thugs, all bets are off, however. Keep yourself and your family safe, and try to do the right thing.
Even though I’m a lawyer, what I write here doesn’t constitute legal advice for any given situation. If you ever find yourself being interviewed by police and you start to have any concern that they might consider you a suspect, you should immediately exercise your 5th Amendment right to STFU and your 5th and 6th Amendment right to lawyer up.