Unexpected testimony marks drug-gang trial

Witness surprises lawyers with vague answers that conflict with his plea deal

February 11, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

He was one of the government's first key witnesses in the federal death penalty trial of a violent West Baltimore gang, and prosecutors were expecting convicted felon Tavon M. Brown to detail for jurors all he knew about the neighborhood drug trade, the players on the street, and a string of shootings and homicides.

Instead, as he lounged casually in the witness chair, the 25-year-old Brown surprised prosecutors with vague answers and information that in some instances differed from what he had previously told authorities. At various points, he even challenged the lawyers asking the questions.

"You got this all messed up," Brown told Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie A. Gallagher as he studied a map of his old neighborhood, known for the now-razed Lexington Terrace public housing development that once dominated the area.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Tuesday's editions of The Sun about testimony in a federal death penalty trial incorrectly said that government witness Tavon Brown, who is awaiting sentencing on state and federal charges, was on home detention. In fact, he is incarcerated.

Asked by defense attorney Teresa Whalen whether he had read the terms of a plea agreement that compelled his testimony in federal court, Brown shot back: "Yeah, I read it several times. Did you read it?"

And in describing to jurors a murder he committed, Brown said breezily of the victim: "It was either him or me, and I'm here to tell you the story."

The unexpected testimony, which concluded yesterday, could be a boon for the defense attorneys representing the three men on trial. Two of the defendants face a possible death sentence if convicted.

On the witness stand, Brown minimized his own criminal activity as well as the actions of his one-time associates. Most significantly, he dismissed the notion that the young men who hustled cocaine and heroin in the Lexington Terrace neighborhood were in the business together, a potentially important distinction in a case built on federal drug conspiracy charges.

At one point during Brown's testimony, prosecutors showed an excerpt from an FBI surveillance tape where Brown can be seen flagging down a white car and, a few moments later, his friend Karmaan Hawkins can be seen handing something to the driver in what authorities allege was a routine drug sale.

But Brown said he had no way of knowing what his friend was doing or what was involved in the transaction at the car.

"If he had burgers on him, he sold burgers," Brown said. "If he had drugs on him, he sold drugs."

Brown acknowledged selling drugs but said it was not connected to his friends' actions - "He did what he did; I did what I did," he said of Hawkins - or to a central supplier: "It wasn't no particular person that you would go up to and place some big order. ... There was no person that you would say, `This is the crack man,'" Brown testified.

It was unclear how damaging Brown's testimony might be to the government's case, which is expected to continue for up to two months and include several other witnesses with ties to the drugs and violence that authorities say marked the Lexington Terrace gang.

Prosecutors routinely rely on criminals and other shady characters to build cases, because they are the people with inside knowledge of criminal activity. In opening statements in the Lexington Terrace case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea L. Smith warned that a number of government witnesses would have their own criminal past, but she said that did not make their testimony unreliable.

Still, prosecutors had expected Brown to be far more cooperative. Currently on home detention, Brown is facing sentencing on federal gun and drug charges, as well as on his guilty plea last month in state court to the murder of a man named Michael Lee, and one factor for the judges to consider in his punishment will be his level of cooperation with authorities.

Discussing Lee's murder, Brown at first testified that he had grabbed a gun from nearby bushes after learning that Lee was robbing kids in the neighborhood. Under later questioning by Gallagher, he acknowledged that he had grabbed the gun from under a chair in his friend Hawkins' house when they learned some associates were in trouble on the street.

Brown offered some details about two killings that prosecutors say are linked to the defendants in the current case - Michael L. Taylor, Keon D. Moses and Aaron D. Foster. But Brown was a less than stellar cooperator, leaning back in the witness chair with one hand resting on his head and frequently mumbling his answers.

The answers that were audible were not always the ones that prosecutors expected.

Asked about the significance of a tattoo with the initials "L.T." on the side of his face - one mark, authorities have said, of the Lexington Terrace Boys gang - Brown said it had little meaning.

"I don't know. I was young. I just wanted to see how it would look, you know?" he said.

He criticized the quality of the FBI surveillance tapes, saying at one point: "It's a little blurry - can you straighten it up?" And later, when asked what he was doing on the tapes when he flagged down the white car and spoke briefly with its driver, Brown said he didn't know.

"I was chilling that day," he said. "I can't remember what I said to them, or what they said to me."

About an hour into Brown's testimony Monday afternoon, Gallagher abruptly asked for a recess and then told U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake that prosecutors were considering asking Brown to be declared a hostile witness.

Blake allowed Brown's testimony to continue after first allowing him to meet with his court-appointed attorney over the objections of defense attorneys.

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