After Omaha murder case crumbles, lawmaker calls for tougher penalties for witness tampering
By noon Wednesday, State Sen. Justin Wayne had received a handful of phone calls from constituents disheartened by the dismissal of murder charges against the man accused of killing decorated Army Sgt. Kyle LeFlore.
By shortly after noon, he had a proposal he hopes will help patch a justice system that he says effectively rewards defendants for intimidating witnesses of such crimes.
Wayne said he will introduce legislation next session to increase the penalty for witness tampering to the equivalent of the underlying crime. As it is now, any defendant who tries to influence a witness faces the lowest possible felony — and just one year in prison.
Wayne said bolstering the penalty was one logical step he could take after a witness backed out of her account tying Larry Goynes to the January slaying of LeFlore outside the Reign Lounge near 30th Street and Interstate 680 in Omaha. Prosecutors allege that two people — including Goynes’ aunt — had attempted to intimidate the 36-year-old woman, who eventually declined to testify.
“My heart goes out to the LeFlore family,” Wayne said. “I am saddened and deeply troubled that this (intimidation) has continued to go on for as many years as it has. We have a system now where you can actually lessen your sentence by witness tampering.”
Douglas County sees about 10 to 20 cases of witness tampering a year. Upon conviction, each defendant faces the equivalent of a year in prison, although state law encourages judges to put such defendants on probation.
Under Wayne’s proposal, defendants would face a sentence equivalent to the charge they’re trying to influence — or a sentence a notch below. Such a sliding sentencing schedule would be similar to conspiracy cases. Those who conspire to commit a crime face the same penalty as if they had committed the crime.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine welcomes the idea. The County Attorney’s Office offers to relocate witnesses for their protection — as it did in this case.
But such moves can be difficult for people who don’t want to be separated from their family, their jobs or their hometown. (The witness in Goynes’ case apparently declined to be relocated.)
Kleine has long advocated for stiffer penalties for tampering to ensure that defendants remain behind bars while witnesses remain safe. In May, Kleine decried the light penalty after his office filed tampering charges against six people, including two murder defendants, alleging that they tried to bribe a juror.
Tampering with a witness is no less despicable, Kleine said.
“To me, it’s an attack on the system,” he said. “It’s an attack on everything we do here.”
State Sen. Ernie Chambers, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he will carefully “look at any serious matter that people bring to me.” And, Chambers said, he knows Sgt. Kyle LeFlore’s father, Kay, and his family.
“I sympathize with Kay,” Chambers said. “I don’t blame family members or friends for being outraged. There’s going to be outrage, grief — all of it is understandable.”
That said, Chambers called for a pragmatic, rational review of whether the penalty needs to be stiffened. He said the Legislature has erred before by imposing “knee-jerk, lame-brained” mandatory sentences so “my colleagues can appear tough on crime.”
He argued that most defendants never think they’re going to get caught; hence, increasing punishment doesn’t decrease crimes.
“The law has to be based on the Constitution,” Chambers said. “It cannot rest on emotion.”
Wayne, an attorney who handles criminal defense work, said it’s past time to update the penalties. The tampering law was first passed in 1977. It hasn’t been amended since 1994.
A defendant facing life in prison or family members of such a defendant encounter little risk if they face only up to a year in prison, Wayne said.
“At the risk of hurting my criminal law practice, I can no longer stand by and do nothing as a state senator,” Wayne said. “There’s a street code out there that has confused snitching with witnessing a crime. If you’re a witness, you’re a witness. You’re not a snitch.
“If we don’t make people think twice about threatening or harming a witness, then what’s the point?”