Whenever anyone says ‘Witness Protection Program,’ the frame of reference (for me at last) always goes to Goodfellas. For all the movies created about people in the witness protection program, it’s still a fairly secretive and effective endeavor in the United States. The following is a list of little-known facts about the witness protection program.
1. In 1971, the Justice Department created the Witness Security Program (WITSEC) and since its inception, it has provided safety for over 18,000 federal witnesses and their families, as long as they cooperated and gave some pretty incriminating testimony. This promise of safety was what pressured some of the most high-level mobsters to turn state’s witness, including John Gotti.
2. The government is said to spend around $10 million each year in order to keep WITSEC running, but the investment is worth it. Trials who have a witness worth of protection have conviction rates hovering around 89 percent.
3. Most of the witnesses aren’t innocent bystanders – they’re criminals themselves. Less than five percent of the relocated witnesses have no criminal record, and the recidivism rate for members in the program is estimated to be anywhere from 10 to 20 percent. Some law enforcement agencies have complained that some areas become a dumping ground for criminals with law enforcement being kept in the dark about the new residents’ true identity (and special skill set).
4. In the early days, the government was so eager to get old mobsters to testify against their bosses, they became unusually jealous in the expenses they approved. One mob hitman requested (and received) money for his wife’s plastic surgery, including breast implants and a facelift.
5. Witnesses don’t get to live off the state forever. The program will usually pay for housing, new furnishings and a ‘salary’ based on the average cost of living in the area they were sent. However, they are expected to get a job and become self-supporting within six months of entering the program.
6. You have to keep your new identity – forever – even if you get remarried – if you want to remain in the program. Program members cannot divulge their prior identity to new spouses in case the relationship ends and someone reveals it out of spite.
7. The federal government isn’t the only one to have a program. Many states offer relocation for witnesses during and immediately after trials. Project Safeguard in Detroit is one of the better-known programs, which offers food and lodging all through private funding.
8. If you want to leave the program, you can – but proceed with caution. In one case, a witness decided to ignore the rules of the program and take their life in their hands when they returned home to attend a funeral. His home had been rigged to explode as soon as he opened the door.
9. Witnesses get a whole new life. Not only do they get a new name (but sometimes they get to keep their first name) they have to move. They cannot contact anyone from their past life for any reason. They have to get new hobbies. If you liked riding horses, then someone might be hunting you down through every stable in the area. Behavioral specialists are enlisted to help witnesses get rid of strange mannerisms, like the weird snapping thing you do, or flick of the hair. And this goes for your wife and kids, too..