Protecting witnesses in criminal cases is focus of new effort

Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry speaks March 1, 2018, during a press conference at 251 E. Ohio St. (WISH Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Witnesses not talking is one of the biggest challenges for authorities when trying to solve murder cases in Marion County.

The Sheriff’s Office is now working with the Prosecutor’s Office in hopes of forging relationships with victims and witnesses.

They’re doing that by dedicating a sheriff’s deputy to the prosecutor. The deputy’s job will be to connect with victims and witnesses.

Witnesses often don’t talk to authorities. Some are afraid of retaliation, others want to take matters into their own hands, and some just don’t want to snitch. Prosecutors said the 2015 murder of 16-year old Jaylen Johnson is just one of many examples.

It was broad daylight in summer 2015 when somebody shot and killed Johnson. Police found his body slumped over near a detached garage just north of downtown. WISH-TV spoke to the victim’s grandma, who didn’t identify herself just days after he was killed. She had strong words for the suspect.

“Quit playing chicken because you’re going to get caught one damn way or another,” she said.

But getting caught doesn’t necessarily mean consequences.

Prosecutors charged a 16-year old with Johnson’s murder. But, a jury found him not guilty after a key witnesses in the case failed to testify.

During a news conference Thursday, Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said the failure of witnesses to testify is an enormous problem.

Last year, there were up to 40 murder cases that Curry either dismissed or the suspects pleaded to a lesser charge. He said that was due in large part to witnesses not cooperating.

“The lack of cooperation by some members of the public and witnesses and even victims is a significant impediment,” Curry said.

Marion County Sheriff Cpl. Joe Dowdell is part of the solution. But, he cannot show his face.

“If I’m exposing my identity, that does not help the witness. That does not help the victim because they’re saying, ‘Hey. They know who you are. Now, they know who I am,’ because I’m transporting them,” the sheriff’s corporal said.

Dowdell will work with deputy prosecutors to connect with victims. He will try to make them comfortable, protect their identities as much as possible, escort them to court and offer other support.

“Let you know that we are here if it’s a physical protection they need, if there’s support resources they need, we’re there to help so we can help prosecute,” he said.

The sheriff’s corporal has been on the job for a little more than a month. He’s the first sheriff deputy to join the partnership; however, the prosecutor’s office is already using two retired Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers for comparable work.

The hoped-for result: more prosecutions and perhaps the sparing of another family from injustice.