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Fearful witnesses an issue for Hamilton County prosecutors

CINCINNATI (AP) — Prosecutors in southwest Ohio's Hamilton County say witness intimidation continues to sometimes undermine their efforts in violent crime cases.

Witnesses' reluctance to testify has helped murder suspects gain acquittals or convictions for lesser crimes, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported (http://cin.ci/1bqy8tt ). In one case, a witness refused to testify after 36 shots were fired into his home. In another recent case, a murder defendant's friends sat in the courtroom and scared witnesses.

"Sometimes witnesses become so concerned about their safety, they won't talk about it even though it happened right in front of them," said David Prem, assistant county prosecutor.

Prosecutors began going before judges in 2010 to seek permission to withhold witnesses' names before trial in some cases. That followed the killing of a witness in a murder case.

Judges also have banned cellphones in courtrooms. Authorities say audience members intimidated witnesses by taking their pictures.

The number of intimidation cases dropped from 74 in 2009 to 48 in 2011 and to 59 last year. But veteran defense attorney Norm Aubin said the level of intensity of intimidation has risen, especially for violent crime cases.

"It's an issue in murder cases," Aubin said.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Ethna Cooper jailed a witness for 59 days after she refused to testify. When she finally took the stand, she helped prosecutors gain convictions of three co-defendants.

"I had to send a message," Cooper said. "It was important to me that she testify to show the system works, the system cannot be intimidated, the system cannot be manipulated."

Prem recently offered a plea bargain in which a murder suspect got a four-year prison sentence instead of the life sentence he would have faced if convicted of murder. The prospective star witness was a pregnant woman too scared to take the stand, and other witnesses were also reluctant.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people in our society want to live in a safe environment," Prem said. "The cost for that is when you know something about a case, you've got to come to court and testify truthfully about what you know."

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