Skip to main content

Witness Protection Program: Real or Myth?

Stephen Sinclair is a Canadian freelance writer who has been publishing professionally for several years.

What is the Witness Protection Program?

U.S. Marshals practice guarding a "protected witness."

U.S. Marshals practice guarding a "protected witness."

Witness protection is real. What most people think of when they hear "witness protection program" is the United States Federal Witness Protection Program or Witness Security Program operated by the U.S. Marshals Service and administered by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Some states, such as Massachusetts, New York and California, also offer their own witness protection programs for witnesses not covered by federal legislation.

The federal program ensures that the "security, health, and safety" of prosecution witnesses is provided for when their lives are "in danger" in cases dealing with organized crime, drug trafficking, terrorism, and other serious offenses. The immediate family members of witnesses are also cared for.

Witness protection was brought into law in 1970 with the Organized Crime Control Act and amended by the Comprehensive Crime Control Act in 1984. It provides round-the-clock security for witnesses whenever they face a "high-threat environment," such as court and other proceedings.

While members of the federal program usually receive new identities and employment opportunities, most remain responsible for supporting themselves financially. However, every situation is different.

The Marshals Service states that the federal program has been responsible for "providing a unique and valuable tool in the government’s battle against major criminal conspirators and organized crime."

No person under the protection of the Federal Witness Protection Program has ever been "harmed or killed." Since 1970, the U.S. Marshals Service has protected close to 19,000 witnesses and their family members.

Architect of the Witness Protection Program

Seeking to a dedicate a law enforcement agent to the fight against organized crime in 1961, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy enlisted Gerald Shur to the U.S. Department of Justice with the goal of investigating "the mob," as featured in the New York Times.

With his mission, Shur constantly faced witnesses who were willing to testify against organized crime leaders, but were too scared. Said to be "largely at his instigation," the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 became law. This formally began the Witness Security Program or U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program.

"I guarantee you," Gerald Shur was quoted by the Times, "that the kind of people we accept are ones where if the guy testified on Monday morning and didn’t get protection, he would be dead Monday afternoon."

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Soapboxie

New York City mobster Joseph Valachi was the first to testify under early protections that Shur developed into a full-fledged program.

Origin of the Witness Protection Program

The Reality According to One Witness

When asked by the Boston Herald in 2015 if her experience in a Massachusetts program matched what she had previously seen in movies, an unidentified woman was succinct.

"No. Absolutely not."

The member of the program explained how she initially understood the program: that those under witness protection would live in a new house and be given credit cards.

"It's not like that at all," the woman explained. Her teenaged daughter was going to be a witness in a friend's murder trial. Knowing the risk her daughter and family would be taking, the mother encouraged her daughter to go to the police and "do the right thing." But she described the program as living in small, cramped motel room with her partner and three children for a year.

The cost of the motel room was covered, and, in contrast to reports about the federal program, the family lived on a meager $200 weekly allowance. The young mother's own mother was not even made aware of the situation or the whereabouts of her daughter or grandchildren.

Living with either state or federal witness protection might seem glamorous. However, most who have lived under it would seem to disagree. Shur, the architect of the federal program, had to be protected under it after a "Colombian cartel" sought to intimidate him and his wife into revealing the name of another protected witness.

The late Mr. Shur, as featured with C-SPAN'S Book TV, described readying many firearms while using night-vision equipment to watch a group of motorcyclists who had surrounded his witness-protected houseboat.

While they are responsible for saving numerous lives, and the "conviction and incarceration of 10,000 very serious criminals," a witness protection program is seldom a pleasant experience. It is one most people would rather avoid.

Living Under Witness Protection

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Stephen Sinclair

Related Articles