Indy’s witness assistance program aims to break the code of silence
INDIANAPOLIS — The city of Indianapolis spent $200,000 in 2022 to help witnesses protect themselves and their families before they testify in court.
In some cases, the money helped move people out of a dangerous place or install a home security system. It also paid for car repairs and bus fares.
The money comes from the Victim Witness Assistance Program launched in 2018. The purpose of this program is to keep Witnesses safe and remove some of the barriers that may prevent them from participating in a police investigation.
City officials have used the funds to move homeless Witnesses to temporary shelters. It is also used to pay for groceries, rent, clothing, diapers, pet food, and anything else that helps a witness who may be compromising their own safety by agreeing to speak out and putting a criminal on trial bring.
And in a county that has seen a record number of homicides each year for three of the last four years, officials say this program is a key to holding people accountable and curbing the violence.
“We understand there’s a no-snitch code, right?” said Melissa Jude of Indianapolis. “But in some of those cases, you might have a person who just can’t live with themselves because they’ve done or what they’ve orchestrated or witnessed that might actually want to come out.”
“The question is always, ‘What are you going to do to protect me when I come out so you can solve at least some of these murders?’
Melissa Jude understands the need for a program to help witnesses who fear retaliation for cooperating with the police. Her 20-year-old son, Chandler Bussey, was killed on June 12, 2020 near Arsenal Park on the North Side.
“Our family is definitely hurting to this day, so much because of his loss,” Jude said. “He was definitely, you know, a big part of keeping us all together.”
Jude is one of the founders of Parents Forever for Justice, a support and advocacy group for people who have lost loved ones to violence. A program that helps witnesses can only help solve crimes and bring criminals to justice, she said.
The county launched its Victim Witness Assistance Program, or V-WAP for short, in 2018.
The program does not give a witness a new identity. It won’t cover everything a witness might need, but those involved say the money is enough to help people through a rough patch that’s often caused because they’ve been working with investigators.
“It’s called an aid program because it’s just an aid,” said Marion County Attorney Ryan Mears. “When you have more resources, you can offer more to the people we come into contact with every day.”
Officials say the program appears to have had an impact.
“It has had a direct impact on prosecutors and our ability to proceed with prosecutions,” Mears said.
According to Mears’ office, in 2015 there were 35 murder trials that resulted in a verdict and 22 dismissals of murder cases.
In 2019 there were 35 murder trials that resulted in a verdict and only two dismissals.
“I can’t say that any other witnesses came forward,” said Carlette Duffy, deputy director of programs and management for the Department of Public Health and Safety. “Each year the funding has increased and there are more and more families or individuals who are being helped because they are willing to fight back against crime and violence in the community.”
Here’s how some of the money was spent:
- The night before Darrin Banks went on trial in 2019 for spraying bullets into a house that injured a 19-year-old woman and killed 1-year-old Malaysian Robson, prosecutors learned there was a credible threat to life one of the witnesses had given. Mears’ office tapped witness support funds and placed this witness in a hotel room. Banks was sentenced to 53 years in prison.
- In another case, a victim testified against a man convicted of armed robbery, neglect of a loved one and other offenses in 2018. The safety of this victim had been threatened just before the sentencing hearing, so prosecutors quickly put the person in a hotel. The suspect, Paris Duncan, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
“Those are the things that we can offer people that offer that peace of mind, which in turn have resulted in us being able to convict a number of people of violent crimes,” Mears said.
Indianapolis saw 271 homicides in 2021. Last year, Marion County saw 226 homicides. About two out of three homicides in Indianapolis remain unsolved.
City County Councilman Leroy Robinson, chair of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee, said the money to support witnesses is helping, but there are deep problems behind the recent spike in violence.
“The program alone is not enough,” said Robinson. “We need a cultural shift in the mentality and thinking of many people in our community who think spying is wrong. It’s only a spy if you were involved. If you are not involved in the crime, you are not a snitch.”
The death of Jude’s son, Chandler Bussey, remains unsolved. She said the city isn’t doing enough to let people know there is help for witnesses who testify.
“Even if it’s just one case,” Jude said, “when we solve a case through the program, it did what it was supposed to do.”
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at [email protected] or on Twitter: @vicryc.