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Baltimore has a witness cooperation crisis. And it's causing suspects to go free.

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WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — A good witness can make or break a major criminal case, and in Baltimore, a lack of witness cooperation is forcing prosecutors to dismiss criminal cases.

Baltimore prosecutors dismissed 35 percent of cases in 2018 because of a lack of witness cooperation. That's a 2 percent drop compared to the year before, but it's still a major problem in the criminal justice system that is letting suspects go free in a city that suffers from an already high crime rate.

"As a prosecutor, it’s your relationship with your witness that matters," said Jeremy Eldridge, an attorney and former prosecutor, in an interview with WBFF. "And if you have failed to establish that relationship, then it’s going to be more difficult to bring that person into court if they’re experiencing some sort of threatening or influencing."

In an effort to build those relationships, the city and state governments have provided an average of $2.5 million per year to witness services programs, according to WBFF research. These programs include things such as protection, relocation and outreach services for witnesses involved in criminal cases. At the national level, the U.S. government spent more than $250 million to protect witnesses in 2017.

But the current resources do not appear to be effective enough to get witnesses on the stand.

"Our budget will provide 21 times more state funding than last year to help Baltimore city witnesses and victims."
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan during a January news conference

In one example in 2017, a prosecutor reached out to a witness via text message reminding them of a murder trial starting Oct. 27. The potential witness responds that the system has already failed them before, and that they fear their testimony will lead to retribution against them or their family.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has made witness protection a priority in the state's budget, increasing funding that will help bolster programs that keep witnesses safe.

"Our budget will provide 21 times more state funding than last year to help Baltimore city witnesses and victims," Hogan said during an early January news conference.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby has also called for focusing resources on the community when it comes to criminal justice. But funding might not be enough when asking witnesses to put themselves at risk, or potentially upend their lives completely.

"We have to prosecute these violent repeat offenders," Eldridge said. "And the only way to do it is to have that good relationship with the witness."

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