Authorities could soon have one more tool to get drug dealers and violent criminals off the streets. A bill on its way to the governor would protect the identities of witnesses called to testify in court.
Prosecutors say they often have trouble getting the people with the most important testimony to put criminals behind bars to the courthouse. The fears witnesses face in cases of violent crimes and drug-related offenses are real, says Chief Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Chris Bullard.
"They're afraid because they have action frequently taken against them," he explained. "Sometimes their houses are shot up. Sometimes they're threatened."
Bullard sees the effects of that fear in the cases he prosecutes every day.
"They would rather suffer the consequences of the person not going to jail or even perhaps being held in contempt of court out of fear of coming to court because they've been intimidated," he described.
Those consequences affect the public's safety. When you don't have people who witnessed the crime in court, getting a conviction can be difficult, according to attorneys. Then, those criminals could end up back on the streets.
This particular bill tackles drug and violent felony cases. If signed by the governor, the names, addresses and other identifying information of witnesses in those cases would not be disclosed. That protection is already given in gang-related cases.
There are some who questioned if this new protection would prevent suspects from getting a fair trial. NBC12 brought the concern to Attorney General Mark Herring, who fought to get this bill passed.
"I'm not worried about that at all," he responded. "What this does is protect witnesses to crimes, but they're still going to be required to come forward and give testimony in court. So it doesn't deprive those who are charged with crimes with a fair trial in any way."
Herring says his staff has been discussing the bill with the governor's office. He expects Governor McAuliffe to sign it.
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