Fairfax Co. gets $25K for witness protection program

Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Descano speaks during an October 2020 news conference.(AP/Matthew Barakat)

Fairfax County is getting a $25,000 grant that the top prosecutor in the Virginia suburb said will be used to offer security and support to victims and witnesses in criminal trials.

The funding is from a $1 million grant program from Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Lawmakers passed the Virginia Witness Protection Act in 1994, but Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said it’s never been funded. He and other prosecutors have been sounding the alarm, because “this deficiency was really hampering our ability as prosecutors to handle some of the most serious cases,” he said.

Descano’s expecting the funding to be helpful in homicide or domestic violence cases, in which victim or witness testimony is essential. The grant is for the fiscal year that just started July 1.

“Those are the types of cases that can sometimes go awry, because the witness is afraid or the witness is being threatened,” Descano said.

The money, Descano said, can be used to get a witness out of the area for a period of time so they feel comfortable testifying, or to provide them with a doorbell camera “so that they feel safe as they’re waiting to testify.”

Without the grant, money for those things has either been coming from Descano’s office or the police department, he said.

“We were bootstrapping as best we could,” Descano said. “We weren’t always able to be effective in that bootstrapping.”

Broadly, Descano said, there have been homicide cases that only have one witness. Sometimes, that person faces threats of violence, so they wouldn’t testify.

“In that scenario, what we would have wanted to do was get this person out of town, find temporary lodging for this individual in anticipation of their testimony,” Descano said. “But sometimes that’s not always workable, just because of the way that budgets work.”

In stalking or domestic violence cases, or those involving violations of protective orders, “things can really spiral out of control quickly.”

There are dozens of cases where such funding will be helpful, Descano said.

“If we can provide safety and security for witnesses on the front end, we can get that initial conviction, that person won’t be out on the street representing a danger to everybody else,” Descano said.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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