By HÉLÈNE GOUPIL
Imagine having a winning lottery ticket in hand and deciding against cashing in.
Murder witnesses could pocket up to as much as $250,000 each for 16 outstanding homicides in San Francisco, but so far all potential winners have kept mum—now and as long as the awards have been around.
“They’re not effective,” Mayor Gavin Newsom said referring to the recent increase in rewards. “but I haven’t given up on them.”
Most of these, he said, involve cases with likely witnesses, but charges cannot be brought unless those witnesses come forward.
They include Ali Shahin, an 18-year-old murdered in September 2007, Alberto Casillas, 20, murdered in January 2007, and Brian Márquez, a tattoo artist, murdered in September 2005.
Even though offering awards has consistently failed as a crime solving strategy, Tom Burke, a criminal justice professor at Radford University in Virginia who used to work in crime prevention, thinks rewards are still beneficial.
They allow the police department to show the community they’re still working on the case, Burke said. Moreover, smaller award amounts have proven effective for Crime Stoppers, an anonymous tip line that distributes rewards when a tip leads to an arrest and conviction.
Crime Stoppers offers smaller rewards but is an easier sell because it only requires anonymous tipsters to share what they witnessed and not testify in court. Crime Stoppers then relays the information to the police. Although the tipster remains anonymous, the information given to Crime Stoppers can be used in court.
Homicide rewards come out of the budget of the Mayor’s office of criminal justice and are approved by the mayor.
Luis Márquez, the father of Brian Márquez, a 20-year old Mission resident who was killed in September 2005, recently unveiled a billboard publicizing the reward when the mayor increased it to $250,000 from $100,000.
“Brian’s case went up to $250,000 because there are leads out there,” said Norma Márquez, the victim’s sister. “The money is an incentive to speak and tough it out.” Luis Márquez, her father, remains hopeful that someone will come forward, but residents in the Mission disagreed.
“No one is going to talk,” because the fear of retaliation is too high, said a resident of 23rd and Treat Streets who refused to give his name.
Indeed, the reward is hardly money for a spending spree. In effect, it gives the tipster the money to get out of Dodge—or in this case, San Francisco.
“They need to be able to give more money because to be honest with you the District Attorney’s office does not have the witness protection program that the FBI can provide, so the $250,000 dollars would be able to move a family away from the city and give them a fresh new start,” the sister of Brian Márquez said.
“It’s crazy because they move them around but they don’t get new names,” she added, referring to the district attorney’s witness protection program.
Mayor Newsom said that he was aware of the problem. “I’m putting more money in the protection program to encourage people to come forward,” Mayor Newsom said. It’s unclear, however, how much the city will add.