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Witness protection not an option in Mahoning



Published: Thu, July 12, 2007 @ 12:00 a.m.

The murder suspect’s probation in a theft case will likely be yanked.

By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN — Mahoning County is not like the TV cop shows where eyewitnesses to a murder get moved to a government safe house.

“We have nothing like on TV — witness protection — wish we did but we don’t,” county Prosecutor Paul J. Gains said Wednesday. “Why not? You’ll have to ask your legislators at the state house in Columbus. I would provide it if we had the funds.”

Gains said city police have been good about providing extra patrols of witnesses’ homes if he asks, but there’re just no county or city funds for round-the-clock bodyguards. There’s also no money to relocate eyewitnesses.

The issue of protection came up with the shooting death of William “Mike” Burr, who was killed Sunday. Burr was the only eyewitness to the shooting death of his 31-year-old brother, Anthony Perez, last December. Burr was to testify at the trial of two men changed with his brother’s death.

Gains said his office encourages witnesses to go stay with friends or relatives out of state if they can. The county, he said, will pay the costs of transporting witnesses back here when they’re needed to testify.

Past promises

The problem, Gains said, is that the state budget is “strapped.” He said legislators can create a witness protection law but not provide the funding.

Gains said the topic has been discussed before.

Vindicator files show that, in October 1996, sheriff candidate Phil Chance announced a witness protection/relocation plan that would create safe houses for witnesses to live in until the end of the prosecution.

Chance, who won the election that November, said he had a commitment from state Rep. Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown to introduce the necessary legislation that would affect all 88 counties.

Gains recalled Chance’s plan and wondered what happened to the proposed legislation.

Hagan said Wednesday that he remembers discussing the matter in 1996 with a city homicide detective, Chance and then-Attorney General Betty Montgomery but didn’t introduce the legislation.

Time to try again

Hagan said he’ll do some research, call Attorney General Marc Dann and then introduce witness protection/relocation legislation now.

“I’ll make sure we find some money,” Hagan said. “I know some people are not willing to move and if we had speedy trials it would be different.”

Gains acknowledged that, over a span of 22 months, three witnesses to a 2005 drive-by shooting were killed before they could testify at the defendant’s trial.

In February, the murder charge against the defendant was reduced to voluntary manslaughter in a plea agreement and charges of repeat violent offender and felon in possession of a firearm were dismissed.

The prosecutor now has a similar dilemma with the shooting death last weekend on the city’s South Side of Burr, 27, of Struthers.

Burr’s 27-year-old widow, Jocelyn, said she begged, without success, for police protection. The Burr family then hid out at a relative’s home for nearly six months, returning to their Struthers home three weeks ago, thinking it was safe.

Burr’s murder

Gains said he doesn’t want to see the defendants in the Perez homicide escape justice now that Burr is dead. “We’ll work to get other evidence; it’s a damn shame,” he said.

Dion D. Weatherspoon, 19, of Hilton Avenue, meanwhile, has been charged with Burr’s murder. Burr’s widow and detectives are convinced Weatherspoon’s motive was to sink the case against friends of his who are charged with killing her brother-in-law.

The murder charge against Weatherspoon, an admitted gang member, puts his probation in a receiving stolen property case in jeopardy.

In November 2006, Judge James C. Evans of common pleas court placed Weatherspoon on three years’ probation. Judge Evans said Wednesday that the Adult Parole Authority, based on the murder charge, will file a motion to revoke or extend Weatherspoon’s probation and a probable cause hearing will be held.

meade@vindy.com


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