Anti-drug campaign blamed in Dawson arson deaths

Johnnie Cochran firm alleges city responsibility

January 08, 2003|By Laura Vozzella and Del Quentin Wilber | Laura Vozzella and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

In a legal memo expected to land at City Hall in a matter of days, attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. will claim the city bears responsibility for the October arson murder of an East Baltimore family - in part because the anti-drug "Baltimore Believe" campaign encouraged residents to speak out against dealers, a lawyer working with Cochran said yesterday.

Cochran is representing relatives of the Dawson family, who prosecutors say were killed in retaliation for reporting neighborhood dealers to police. A Dawson neighbor, Darrell L. Brooks, 21, faces federal charges in the deaths of the seven family members.

No lawsuit has been filed, but Cochran indicated that one was likely in a previous letter to the city.

The memo being finalized this week will outline the factual and legal basis for Cochran's claim that the city owes relatives "substantial redress" for the deaths, said Janell Byrd-Chichester, an attorney with the Cochran Firm in Washington.

Part of the claim will focus on the "Believe" campaign, which encourages residents to take back their city from drug dealers in a number of ways, including reporting dealers to police, Byrd-Chichester said.

She said the campaign expresses "a wonderful sentiment," but put the family in danger.

"It's reckless to invite people to step up to a dangerous situation, and then be on notice that these particular people have stepped up and are in danger, and then fail to provide protection," Byrd-Chichester said. "The outcome should not have been surprising."

`Flooded the airwaves'

Asked if it was known that the "Believe" campaign prompted the Dawsons to report dealers, she said, "There were commercials on radio and TV. As I understand it, they flooded the airwaves."

The "Believe" campaign has been a signature program of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who says the city can defeat its drug problem only if average citizens step up. O'Malley spokesman Tony White declined to comment on allegations linking the campaign to the Dawsons' deaths.

City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. also declined to discuss Cochran's claim.

In a letter sent to O'Malley on Nov. 26, Cochran said city police had failed to protect the family, but did not mention the campaign. The letter contended that the city would have done more for the Dawsons if they had been white or middle-class.

Zollicoffer sent a written response Dec. 6 that asked Cochran to send him a "courtesy memorandum" outlining the factual and legal basis for his claims.

"I don't know where Mr. Cochran is going with this," Zollicoffer said. "I'll wait for his response."

The memo will allege that the city failed to heed warnings that the lives of Angela Maria Dawson, Carnell Dawson Sr., and their five school-age children were in danger, Byrd-Chichester said.

The family's rowhouse at 1401 E. Preston St. was firebombed Oct. 3. The Dawsons escaped that attack unharmed, but all seven perished after the house was set ablaze again Oct. 16.

Officials with the state's attorney's office have said they offered to relocate the family through its witness protection program after the first fire, but that the Dawsons refused, saying they would not be run out of their home by drug dealers. Police also said they stepped up patrols of the area.

"I do understand the state's attorney said they did what they could do and the Police Department said they did what they could do," Zollicoffer said. "Unfortunately it's one of those horrible things that happen."

Protective measures

Police officials declined to comment on Cochran's allegations yesterday. But they provided an account of what steps they took to protect the family:

The day of the Oct. 3 fire, arson detectives and officers stepped up patrols and canvassed the area for witnesses. Arson detectives returned the next day.

Four days after the attack, Detective Timothy Holt spoke with Angela Dawson about the fire and asked whether she had received any additional threats. She had not.

Holt spoke with her again Oct. 9 and she reported no further problems. That day, a sergeant and two officers in the department's community affairs division met with Angela Dawson and discussed what assistance was available to her.

On Oct. 14, Lt. Richard A. Hite Jr. met with Carnell Dawson to discuss his family's options. He told Hite that he would not be forced to leave his neighborhood by drug dealers.

At 1:05 a.m. Oct. 16, the day of the fatal arson, Maj. Gregory Eads, commander of the Eastern District, was on a routine patrol in the area and stopped by to check on the Dawsons. He saw nothing unusual. At 2:18 a.m., the house was set ablaze.

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