Justice Also Needs Protection

Who’s to blame for the death of Dong Dinh? Late last month, the 64-year-old was gunned down as he answered the front door of his San Jose home. Investigators suspect the killing was retaliatory--payback by a vicious gang on trial in Van Nuys for a host of murders and attempted murders.

Dinh’s son, Troung Dinh, testified against seven members of the Asian Boyz gang. For that, the one-time gang member was granted immunity from prosecution and given protection by authorities who feared for his life. Another ex-Asian Boyz member scheduled to testify against his former comrades was killed in 1996, a day before trial was to begin. Authorities understandably did not want to repeat that incident and kept Troung Dinh under guard. But that same protection was not extended to members of Dinh’s family. It may have cost Dong Dinh his life.

Family members last week were openly critical of Los Angeles prosecutors and police officials, who in turn tried to shift blame away. Although prohibited by a gag order from discussing why Dinh’s family was left exposed to retribution, prosecutors and police disagreed over who is responsible for arranging protection of witnesses and their families.

The Los Angeles district attorney’s office said the responsibility for determining whether a witness needs protection lies with the police department investigating the crime. But a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman said the district attorney determines who gets protection.


Which is it?

It’s troubling that the lines are not more clear. Witness protection cannot be a casual operation. Lives are at stake. And the credibility of the justice system is at risk. When witnesses fear for their lives and the safety of their families, they are less likely to offer critical testimony that may keep murderers and other criminals off the street.

Protecting Dinh’s family in a place as far away as San Jose may have been difficult logistically. But Southern California authorities did not so much as call San Jose police to let them know that Dinh’s family might be in danger. “Obviously,” said San Jose Police Sgt. Derek Edwards, “we would have liked to have known about this.” Since the shooting, San Jose police have provided protection to the Dinh family.

Dong Dinh’s killing highlights potentially important gaps in the way witnesses are protected in Southern California. Those gaps must be closed. Thugs must know that violence cannot replace justice.