HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — Thousands of people across Virginia find themselves torn between doing what’s right and staying alive.
While court systems across the commonwealth have victim services units, there is no witness protection program.
10 On Your Side dug into the safety and court proceeding implications of not having the program.
“Shots were fired, and I was right in the middle. I could have gotten killed. I witnessed them just take an innocent person’s life,” a woman told 10 On Your Side.
For safety reasons, we will call this woman “Jane.”
Jane was a witness in a local homicide case that put multiple gang members behind bars. Even from behind bars, she says the gang members have sent out coded letters putting a hit out on her.
“I still live with this fear to this day,” said Jane.
It’s a fear that will follow her for the rest of her life.
At one of the lowest points in her life, she says she was raped by a local gang leader.
“There were times when I tried to make my voice heard, ‘I was raped.’ Or ‘I’m hurt, this is not right, and I don’t want to be here.’ It was turned into, like, he would threaten my life,” recalled Jane.
After being repeatedly raped and beaten, Jane says she found herself in the gang’s inner circle.
“After that, he would just make me do things and when I didn’t want to do it, I got punished,” Jane said.
However, when a gang member shot and killed a man in cold blood and the police needed a witness to get a conviction, she decided to cooperate.
“I was very afraid at first. I lied I said I didn’t know anything but just the flashbacks of seeing an innocent person,” said Jane.
“This one person just made chaos go on and he hurt people. Innocent people, like kids, it didn’t matter and that to me, mattered,” she added.
Working to make sure people like Jane are safe throughout the court process is Director of Victim Services for the Hampton Commonwealth’s Attorney Office Karla Reaves.
Her team ensures the rights of crime victims are protected in the court system.
In cases of gang violence and intimidation, like Jane’s, Reaves says getting witnesses to cooperate has gotten more and more difficult.
“I’ve been doing this 36 years. Early on, things could be settled with a fight, you know, ‘I’m not telling, snitches get stitches,’ but I have seen that evolve into ending up in a casket, so that’s the fear that you have,” Reaves said.
Reaves goes above and beyond her responsibilities when it comes to keeping witnesses and victims safe.
In the past, she has used connections to help witnesses stay safe out of state, but at a certain point, their hands are tied.
“People do get murdered as a result of their knowledge of something,” said Reaves.
After all, victim services are nothing like a witness protection program.
In fact, there is no witness protection program in Virginia.
“Witness protection is just that you see the federal government may help you change your name, identity, move you, you never come back. We don’t have the ability to do that,” said Reaves.
Unless it’s a federal case, witnesses like Jane have nowhere to turn in the commonwealth.
Jane is just one of thousands of people across Virginia torn between doing what’s right and staying alive.
It’s a problem Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi had made his passion project.
“There was an effort in the early 90s to create a witness protection program in Virginia. The General Assembly passed the statute to do that … The state police was supposed to administer it; the General Assembly has never funded it. That means the program has not existed anywhere other than on paper. It has never helped a single witness,” said Fatehi.
In one case, Fatehi needed a witness to help get a murder indictment.
He’ll never forget talking to the witness’s father.
“I said ‘I really need him. I can’t go forward in this case without him.’ He said ‘When they come for my son are you going to let him live in your house?’ I felt helpless absolutely helpless,” Fatehi said.
He had to dismiss the case the next day.
“From that point further, it became a personal mission of mine to try and put something into place to help people so we can convict the people who are killing people,” explained Fatehi.
Fatehi isn’t alone. Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) put in a request to fund Virginia’s witness protection program, but it was shut down.
Fatehi says he’ll keep fighting for the funding and Reaves will keep fighting to protect witnesses. And brave people like Jane will keep fighting for what’s right.
“Even if my last breath is trying to help someone else do the right thing,” said Jane.
Only six states have their own witness protection programs for crimes not covered by the federal program.
Also, since the murder trial, Jane has completely turned her life around for the better. She has a good job and family of her own — something that may not have happened if she didn’t have the courage to face fear head-on.