Officials work to protect witnesses

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Threats against witnesses are all too common in criminal court cases and don’t always end when the verdict is reached, according to District Attorney Matt Chandler.

Last week, police filed a warrant for the arrest of a Clovis man they say threatened retaliation against witnesses.

Chandler said his office has a zero tolerance policy when the safety of its witnesses is on the line.

Friday’s warrant was obtained for Jeremy Banister, according to Clovis Police Lt. Roger Grah.

Banister, 23, is wanted in connection with threats made against witnesses who testified in a recent homicide case, according to police reports filed in early May.

Reports show he threatened the witnesses with a firearm, calling them “snitches” for testifying against a homicide defendant, who was convicted.

Banister is charged with three counts aggravated assault, three counts felon in possession of a firearm and three counts or retaliation against a witness, Grah said. The Clovis News Journal agreed to withhold the names of the witnesses at their request due to safety concerns.

Threats and retaliation against witnesses is a dynamic police see often, Grah said, and those cases are a priority because law enforcement have to ensure the safety of people who assist in the criminal justice process, Grah said.

“We really push hard on those because we can’t have people trying to stop the system from working,” he said.

Chandler said every effort is made to protect witnesses, before, during and after their testimony.

Witnesses often face obstacles when they come forward, Chandler said, explaining incidents of threats and intimidation occur in cases ranging from domestic violence to homicides.

“Witnesses are reluctant to testify in a large majority of the homicide cases because one person’s life has already been taken and they have a natural fear that they may be retaliated against next for giving statements,” he said.

Testifying also violates an unwritten code in the prison and street culture, Chandler said.

Chandler said law enforcement closely patrols the neighborhoods of witnesses and investigates any incidents that threaten their safety. In some cases, the district attorney’s office has assisted witnesses in relocating or leaving the area because of concerns for their safety, he said.

Intimidation of a witness is a felony, and murder for hire carries the death penalty in New Mexico, Chandler said.

“The district attorney’s office will seek the death penalty if there ever was a homicide based upon retaliation or intimidation of a witness to prevent them from testifying or carrying out a hit,” Chandler said.