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Searching for Witnesses. Still.

May 22, 2007 | 12:21 pm

Powell_marvinbillboardNo one has called in response to this billboard seeking witnesses in the murder of Marvin Powell, killed in February 2006 in the 1200 block of West 48th Street. The billboards have been posted in various places in South-Central Los Angeles, a combined effort of community advocates and the Los Angeles Police Department, and ask viewers to call Det. Joe Chavez at (213)-485-1383 if they have information. But like so many efforts of this nature, it hasn't worked.

Breaking through the witness-reluctance problem is one of the toughest tasks facing American law enforcement. In Los Angeles, rewards--up to $50,000 nowadays--and witness-relocation programs have failed to produce the soughtafter results. Year after year, police and prosecutors are nearly unanimous on one point: Lack of cooperation from witnesses remains the single most important impediment to prosecuting murder suspects in the mass of homicide cases.

It's a tremendously important issue. Despite seemingly endless public fascination with "CSI"-style processing of physical evidence, and a slew of money and public-policy efforts geared toward the same, the truth is witness accounts are more important than physical evidence in the vast majority of murder cases in Los Angeles. Not the cases that make the national news, perhaps, or that provide fodder for fictional T.V. shows. But the ones in which the masses of victims die.

The problem of reluctant witnesses has been around for decades. Fear, distrust of the system, or traditions of what the United Nations has called "extra-judicial justice" seals people's lips. Police, prosecutors, community advocates, and victims' families are largely on their own with these highly complex social dynamics. Billboards are a desperate move. But at the level of police precincts and county courthouses, no one seems to know what else to do. Powell's murder remains unsolved.

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