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August 22, 2014, 1:53 am

Witness protection is not optional

Chante Wright. Octavia Green. Omar Morris. Marcella Coleman. Damir Jenkins. Tameka Nash. Khadjah Nash. Tahj Porchea. Sean Rodriguez. Rodney Ramseur. Latia Jones.

If these names aren’t familiar to you, take another look at them. This is only a partial list of Philadelphians killed in the last few years because they witnessed a crime, or someone close to them did.

Witness intimidation, and even murder, is not the product of a Hollywood screenwriter’s active imagination — in Philadelphia it is a fact, a reality of modern urban America that strikes at the very heart of our quality of life.

Make no mistake, when witnesses to a crime are intimidated into silence — whether that intimidation is real or perceived — criminals go free. There are murderers walking the streets of Philadelphia right now who should be in prison for a very long time, if not for the fact that those citizens who saw what they did were afraid to come forward. Those murderers, now emboldened by getting away with their crimes, are likely to kill again.

It’s too easy to blame witnesses’ real fears on some “no snitching” culture, or dismiss their reluctance as a “thug life” by-product — these are decent people who otherwise would do the right thing, but who fear the retaliation of the thugs who would not hesitate to go after their families, even their children.

“The police are very adept at determining when someone is being threatened,” said Tasha Jamerson, spokesperson for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office to Tribune crime reporter Larry Miller. “Any witness in any case who feels threatened would be offered services by both our office and the police department. We would never turn away anyone who asks for our help.”

District Attorney Seth Williams has asked City Council for a budget increase, partly to preserve and expand Philadelphia’s witness protection services, which even he admits are inadequate at present. We applaud the District Attorney’s efforts, and appreciate his clear acknowledgement that more needs to be done — and sooner rather than later.

The District Attoney’s office and the police department should not wait to be asked, and witnesses and their families shouldn’t be forced to live in fear while waiting for services that could save their lives. A blanket of city protection should cover these witnesses from the minute they agree to tell what they know, not when they’re already in danger — when it may be too late.

The dead witnesses whose names are listed at the top of this column cry out for justice — and demand that we prioritize not only the punishment of the guilty, but the protection of the truly innocent.