Witnesses are testimony of poverty, despair

April 25, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

I AM AMONG women and children uprooted by homicide. There are two babies in diapers - a 6-month-old girl asleep on a couch, oblivious to the loud television and chatter in the cramped living room, and a 20-month-old girl bobbing and weaving through human traffic, trying not to bump into a cousin or aunt. One of the aunts is 11 years old, and she's quietly eating cereal in the kitchen. She should be in school, where she once had a perfect attendance record, but she's not because of the homicide.

Two other children, 3 and 5 years old, mill about, looking for something to do. Until the homicide, the 5-year-old had been in pre-K.

A small woman in a bathrobe retires down a hallway to the only bedroom in the house. Her daughter, a thin woman in her mid-30s - I'll call her Darla to protect her identity for the purposes of this column - talks faster than I can possibly take notes, betraying the stress that's poured into her life since becoming a state's witness in the homicide. She has colorful rollers in her hair; she's trying to transform her braids into curls to give herself a new look so guys from her 'hood won't recognize her so easily.

Darla's daughter is here, too. She's 19 years old, the mother of three of the children in the room. Let's call her Tania.

It's a warm day, and I wish I was fishing, or doing something that wouldn't remind me of the poverty and violence that sucks the sap out of Baltimore, my wonderful city, bursting with progress everywhere, but still infected with drug addiction and killer-dealers.

Here we are - in this little house on a depressing edge of town, and the house is filled with women and children uprooted because of a street killing last fall, and this is what passes for a safe house in Baltimore. This is what passes for "witness protection."

Darla and Tania - and one of the six children between them - saw the shooting of Darla's brother, who, she says, "had been out there, into the life."

That means drugs, of course. He had been involved in their use and sale, when he wasn't in jail or prison.

Last fall, while "out there, into the life," a young man walked up to him and shot him dead.

A week or so later, the Baltimore state's attorney's office arranged to remove Darla, Tania and their children from the neighborhood where the killing took place.

Darla and her daughter were scared. They could identify the killer. Both were willing to testify against him, once he was arrested and brought to trial. In return for this courage - far too rare in a city where between 250 and 300 homicides occur each year - the women were given a $35 food voucher and driven by sheriff's deputies to a hotel outside the city.

They stayed there - two women and six children in two dreary, damaged rooms - for five months, at a cost to the taxpayers of $10,000, according to the state's attorney's office.

Darla's two daughters, a 14-year-old and the aforementioned 11-year-old, did not attend school because the county where the hotel is located would not accept them until they had lived there 120 days. Neither Darla nor Tania had a car. Nor did they have a relative willing to drive to the hotel each day, get the girls and take them to their city school. And the bus route was too long.

In March, police arrested a man in connection with the killing of Darla's brother.

Two weeks later, Tania got a chill.

She was in her hotel room when, she says, a young man in a hooded sweat shirt came to her door and asked for her mother. Tania refused to open the door. She watched the 'hoodie through the peephole. She didn't recognize him. She became frightened again.

That's when she, her mother and their children moved out of the hotel on their own - this time to a cramped house on the edge of town.

"We don't feel safe," Darla says. "That hotel, a lot of people staying there were witnesses. Everyone knew it. This is supposed to be witness protection, but it's not."

She's right.

The city of Baltimore, with its cutthroat drug culture, should have a witness protection program. It should have a large safe house somewhere, providing full services - including round-the-clock police protection and education for uprooted children - to witnesses willing to give up the killer-dealers in court.

You could pay for it with a tiny fraction of the money the White House wants to spend to make Iraq safe.

You could call such a place the Dawson House, after the East Baltimore family killed in retaliation for their repeated complaints to police about drug trafficking. The Dawsons refused to leave their neighborhood, and it cost them their lives. Others are not so brave or determined. If relocating them means they'll live to testify against killers, and that more killers will go to prison, then such a comprehensive service is essential.

But the city doesn't have it.

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