Mixed messages accompany burial of slain witness

February 24, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Latisha Regina Murphy will be buried today, whether or not East Baltimore peeks its collective head out of hiding long enough to notice.

Murphy, 34, will be buried because she witnessed the killing of Tauris Johnson, a child caught in an exchange of gunfire between feuding drug dealers. Tauris was 10. Murphy, revolted by the murder and falling under various encouragements, decided she would testify in court about the things that she saw.

In an ideal world, such a gesture carries the mark of nobility. At this time in the city of Baltimore, it indicates something more. Bearing witness in certain criminal cases is considered a flirtation with death.

And so a postscript follows Murphy's slaying, almost as if confirming ancient street wisdom to dummy up: Nobody seems to know anything. In the two weeks since her slaying, city police say they've gotten very little information, even though there were lots of people on Crystal Avenue when Murphy was gunned down. There is unfortunate eloquence in such silence.

Murphy was ready to do something brave, and she paid for it. Yet a certain ambivalence, even beyond the silence, surrounds the reaction to her hideous dying. Shot twice in the face, she's become a martyr to some, a figure mourned in public the other evening in a great outpouring of emotions, in a community grown frazzled by violent endings. But to some, particularly those who'd read of her own lifestyle, she's a woman who simply danced too close to the flame of drugs and got burned.

With television cameras summoned to Crystal Avenue, the Rev. Willie Ray declared Tuesday, "We have to let the drug dealers know that they're not going to intimidate us."

XTC But a middle-aged man standing along the edges of the demonstration disagreed. He knew Murphy's history, knew she'd let a drug dealer use her home to stash his drugs. The drug dealer's name was Nathaniel Dawson. Dawson, 24, was on parole for drug convictions when he allegedly shot Tauris Johnson.

''This broad was a stash,'' the middle-aged man said now. ''She got what she deserved.''

And so the city grapples, yet again, with confused feelings in its continuing futile efforts against the dealing of weapons and drugs. And those escapees to suburbia gaze toward the city and wonder, what are these awful things happening in the Baltimore we once knew?

On Crystal Avenue Tuesday night, at one in a series of "Stop the Killing" rallies here, Mr. Ray and others pleaded for money to help bury Murphy, the mother of three children. The children attended the rally. They live in a world where people their age, people like Tauris Johnson, are gunned down for the crime of living in a dangerous place.

Their mother happened to be watching as young Johnson was shot in the head on East Oliver Street on Nov. 4. For reasons not entirely clear -- A sudden burst of morality? A hint from police that they might overlook some of her own drug activities? -- she'd let it be known she would testify in the killing.

Surely, people said Tuesday night, this gesture was worth remembering. Surely, she was trying to fight the drug dealers, however belatedly. Surely, some would contribute to her burial.

But yesterday, at the William C. Brown Community Funeral Home on North Avenue, they reported that only a single $15 check had arrived for burial expenses.

"If more money comes, it comes," said a funeral home spokesman. "If it doesn't, we'll still have a service."

Who knows what to make of such a community response? A tough economy? Fear of angering those behind Latisha Murphy's murder? Or a sense of ambivalence about Murphy, who played with fire and got burned?

Yes, she'd decided to testify against Nathaniel Dawson, her one-time boss. That took courage. But Murphy was a little late finding her morality.

And so Tuesday's rally on Crystal Avenue carried mixed messages. From the Rev. Willie Ray came talk of the bravery of Latisha Murphy, of the redemption of the human spirit. From a man of faith, we expect such messages.

But there was another lesson, unspoken but unmistakable: Retribution is what happens to those who step forward. Death comes to those defying the ancient wisdom of the streets.

And only time will tell which message will be heard, the preacher's or those with the guns.

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