Page last updated at 13:43 GMT, Friday, 6 June 2008 14:43 UK

Secret witnesses helping justice

By Chris Summers
BBC News

A teenager who shot dead a youth worker over a stolen gold chain has been jailed for life following the help of anonymous witnesses. The conviction of Junior Glasgow highlights the special measures needed to persuade witnesses to come forward.

Junior Glasgow
Junior Glasgow: Jailed for life

Every day police forces up and down the country investigating murders and other serious crimes come across what is known in the media as the "wall of silence".

Eyewitnesses and others who have crucial information which could convict a criminal are cowed into keeping quiet by fear.

It could be fear of being killed, but not necessarily. Sometimes, in communities where co-operation with the police is socially unacceptable, it can be concerns about being ostracised by neighbours.

The Crown Prosecution Service's reviewing lawyer, Devi Kharran, said: "The problem of getting witnesses to come forward and give evidence is significant.

We can't take any chance - we can't guarantee a prosecution if we can't have the confidence of the witnesses
Devi Kharran
Crown Prosecution Service

"We needed to think long and hard about how to overcome these difficulties."

The CPS and the police are becoming more and more imaginative about when and how to deploy special measures to protect witnesses.

The murder of 18-year-old youth worker Nathan Foster was a case in point.

On Friday, 17-year-old Junior Glasgow was jailed for life for shooting dead Mr Foster in Brixton, south London, in August last year.

Ms Kharran explained: "It was a circumstantial case built on eyewitnesses who were at the scene. There was very little forensic evidence."

She said specific measures were used in the case to encourage witnesses to come forward, including:

  • Witnesses being referred to anonymously in all court documents with pseudonyms used to protect their identities

  • Screening to protect them from being seen by the defendant or anyone in the public gallery

  • The use of voice modulation devices to protect their identities when giving evidence.

    She explained how voice modulation worked: "Those in open court - including the defendant - hear a distorted voice but the judge and the jury are given headphones which decode the distortion so that they are hearing the witness's true voice."

    Several witnesses were given pseudonyms.

    One, referred to as Alan Kennett, saw the defendant firing the gun and identified him in an ID parade.

    Another witness, using the name Simon Alloway, knew Glasgow and identified him to the police.

    Nathan Foster
    Nathan Foster was shot dead in Brixton in August 2007

    During the trial, the prosecutor, Michael Shorrock QC, told the jury: "The measures taken are designed to make the witnesses feel more at ease when giving evidence. You must not hold it against the defendant that such measures are in place. I must emphasise that to you."

    Defence barristers have in the past criticised the granting of anonymity to prosecution witnesses because it can deprive them of opportunities during cross-examination.

    The murder of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis in Birmingham in 2003 set a legal precedent which allowed anonymity of witnesses.

    Richard Ferguson QC, who represented one of the accused, said: "That is a very difficult issue that the criminal justice system is going to have to grapple with. It's up to society if it thinks that is a proper price worth paying."

    Duty to disclose

    CPS lawyer Devi Kharran conceded that granting anonymity to witnesses inevitably deprived defence barristers of possible lines of cross-examination.

    But she said: "We have to ensure there is no bias among witnesses. If there is we have a duty to disclose it to the defence. If, for example, we learned that someone had a 10-year grudge against the defendant, we would have to disclose it."

    Giles Van Colle
    Giles Van Colle, who was murdered as he waited to give evidence in a trial

    The protection offered to the witnesses in the Nathan Foster case is in stark contrast to what happened to optician Giles Van Colle.

    In 2000 Mr Van Colle was shot dead outside his shop in north London. He had been due to give evidence against an employee, Daniel Brougham, who was facing trial for theft. Brougham was later convicted of his murder.

    In a landmark ruling in 2006 the High Court found that the police had violated Mr Van Colle's human rights in failing to "discharge their positive obligation" to protect his life.

    His family was subsequently awarded 50,000 in damages but the police have appealed and a ruling is due soon from the Law Lords.

    Ms Kharran said it was true that witnesses did sometimes face a mortal threat. "It's a reality on the streets of London. We can't take any chances. We can't guarantee a prosecution if we can't have the confidence of the witnesses.

    "We make sure they feel they are being protected. That gives them the confidence to give evidence without fear of reprisals."

    She said she was very happy with the outcome of the Nathan Foster case and added: "It's a positive message that gun crime will not be tolerated and it's important to let the community know that the police and CPS will work together to protect witnesses and will prosecute any crimes involving guns and gangs."

  • video and audio news
    The conviction was all down to the bravery of four young witnesses.

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