Girl IDs defendant in father's killing

Victim's daughter, 11, tells jury she saw him get shot as he tried to protect wife

July 10, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

An 11-year-old girl who prosecutors say was the target of a murder-for-hire plot because she witnessed her father being gunned down on a Southwest Baltimore street confronted the alleged killer yesterday in city Circuit Court.

Yesterday was Tashiera Peterson's 11th birthday.

Dressed in pink and white stripes with a picture of her father hanging around her neck, Tashiera spoke clearly to the jury and sobbed only once - when she explained how her father, Russell Peterson, was trying to protect her mother before he was fatally shot last year.

Prosecutors say Peterson stepped into an argument involving his wife, Patricia Peterson, and the defendant, DeAndre Whitehead, 19, who had sold his wife a $10 bag of "burned," or fake, drugs that he passed off as crack cocaine.

"My father told the man to leave my mother alone," Tashiera said, her small voice breaking with emotion. "And before he could do anything, he got shot."

Defense lawyer Marci Tarrant Johnson told the jury that her client did not kill Peterson.

"They got the wrong guy," Johnson said. "This case is about mistake and rumor."

Tashiera testified that on Aug. 9 last year, she had been to a family reunion all day with her father and went to bed after returning home late at night. She was awakened about midnight when she heard her father screaming from her bedroom window.

Tashiera's mother was in front of their house, in the 800 block of Carroll St., arguing with Whitehead when her husband yelled out the window for them to stop fighting, according to prosecutors.

Russell Peterson grabbed his walking cane and hobbled down the stairs, as Tashiera followed, the girl testified. Less than a minute later, Russell Peterson was shot.

Prosecutor Denise Fili asked Tashiera whether she knew who shot her father.

"Yes," Tashiera replied, dropping her head into her chest and pointing to Whitehead.

Tashiera and her mother also separately picked out Whitehead's picture in a police lineup shortly after the killing.

As Patricia Peterson testified yesterday, she wept so deeply on the stand that she often had to repeat what she said so jurors could understand.

She said that Whitehead was the man who sold her drugs, argued with her and then shot her husband.

Patricia Peterson initially lied to police about the reason she was arguing with Whitehead, she said.

"I was ashamed that my husband got killed for $10," she said. "But before it went to trial, I came forward and told the truth."

The prosecutor told the jury that shortly after Whitehead was arrested in Peterson's killing, he asked a cellmate, Byron James, to kill Tashiera and her mother so they couldn't testify against him.

James, who is expected to testify next week, told police about the plot. According to court documents, Whitehead told the inmate to "do the [expletive], indicating that the little girl would not be able to testify without her mother."

Mother and daughter are now in the city's witness assistance program.

Whitehead is charged with first-degree murder and two counts of solicitation to commit murder.

Presiding Judge Robert Heller, who is visiting from Anne Arundel County, split the cases, meaning this trial involves only Peterson's murder. Whitehead will face a separate trial on charges of hiring someone to kill Tashiera and her mother.

To collect evidence in the case, police wired James with a microphone in September and had him secretly record a conversation between Whitehead and himself in the jail. That conversation included details of the plan, such as encoded messages and a payment schedule, court documents show.

Heller ruled before the trial started that the tape could not be presented to the jury as evidence because the way in which it was recorded violated Whitehead's right to have a lawyer present.

Yesterday's courtroom drama was not exciting enough for all the jurors, as one fell asleep in the afternoon during testimony from medical examiner Carol H. Allan. The judge had jurors stand up and stretch in an effort to keep them awake.

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