In atmosphere of fear, one witness steps up

Shooting victim's testimony leads to a guilty plea

April 05, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

All it took were those three little words: He shot me.

With that, Dontaya Preston was sent to prison for seven years, after having skirted justice several times because his alleged victims never testified against him. One man fled to Long Island, N.Y., rather than take the witness stand against the man known on Baltimore streets as "Beefcake."

Preston, 22, a slight man with choirboy looks, is not the meanest guy in this violence-plagued city. Rather, his tour through the criminal justice system is emblematic of the problem prosecutors routinely face in trying to send gun-toting offenders to prison - reluctant witnesses.

But on Tuesday, Shawn Butler was unequivocal when he told jurors in Baltimore Circuit Court that Preston was the one who shot him twice last year, pumping bullets into his neck and chest. After Butler's testimony, Preston pleaded guilty to attempted murder and handgun charges.

"Finally," prosecutor Sylvester Cox said yesterday. "Dontaya has been around the block, and he's been skating."

Preston, described in court records as a West Baltimore drug dealer, has a long criminal record, including convictions for drug possession and distribution. He pleaded guilty four years ago to assault for trying to wrench a police officer's gun away from him during a struggle on the floor of a carryout store.

Since 1996, he has also been charged with two shootings and pointing his gun in a woman's face - but the cases ended up dying in court because the witnesses either refused to testify or could not be found.

"When you can't find these people [victims or witnesses], there's not much we can do," Cox said. Preston was "wreaking some kind of havoc out there."

Prosecutors say witnesses fear retaliation. Some are paid off. In addition, some victims would rather settle their score on the street than in court.

But even if witnesses do come to court, it is common for them to change their stories. They tell jurors that they were high or drunk at the time they identified their attackers or that police coerced them.

`I forgot who shot me'

Prosecutors joke that one of the most frequently heard statements in the courthouse is, "I forgot who shot me."

In Preston's cases, none of the alleged victims took the stand.

Five years ago, he was charged with shooting a man named Pernell Beckette several times in the neck and back because Beckette was rumored to have stolen a drug stash. Beckette told police Preston shot him. He then fled to Long Island because he feared testifying would provoke retribution against his family. Without him, prosecutors had to kill the case.

Three years later, prosecutors had to spike another case because they could not find the victim, Nawann Blandon. From his hospital bed, Blandon had told police Preston shot him several times while he was standing at a pay phone in the 2700 block of Pennsylvania Ave. Then he vanished.

In May of last year, prosecutors had to toss yet another case. Preston was charged with first-degree assault and reckless endangerment for allegedly pointing a gun in the face of a neighbor in the 4900 block of Clifton Avenue because she interrupted a fight between Preston and his girlfriend.

"State's witnesses never have appeared," court records say.

Even in this week's case, prosecutor Cox had a hard time finding the victim, Butler, and tentatively dropped the case months ago. He ordered that Butler be arrested and reopened the case when police found him.

Pleasant surprise

Cox said he was "surprised, pleasantly surprised," that Butler agreed to testify. He said Butler told him he did not come to court because he had moved and had never received the summonses.

So on Tuesday, Preston's trial went forward. Butler, 26, who is in jail awaiting trial in a shooting case, testified that on March 21, 2000, he was standing on a stoop at Monroe Street and Walbrook Avenue when Preston shot him. He said the two had a small dispute months earlier that was still simmering.

After one bullet hit him in the neck, Butler testified, he fell to the pavement, looked up and saw the flash of the gun "when he shot me again" in the chest.

"Can you identify the person who was shooting at you?" Cox asked Butler.

"Yes," he replied.

"And who is that person, sir?"

"Dontaya Preston," Butler answered, pointing to the defendant.

After Butler's testimony, Preston decided to enter an Alford plea - a form of guilty plea that allows him to maintain his innocence while conceding the state has the evidence to convict him.

He made the decision after a witness who was supposed to testify in his defense did not come to court.

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