Witness intimidation

December 09, 2004

CARMELO Anthony's cameo appearance on a bootleg DVD caught everyone by surprise: There he is, Baltimore's NBA star, laughing with his homeboys in a video ominously titled Stop Snitching. Mr. Anthony's bit is a mere six minutes of a two-hour rant by drug dealers who warn that the payback for snitches is a bullet in the head. The 20-year-old basketball player insists he had no idea that he was appearing in anything other than a homeboy's home movie. But he has neither protested the disturbing contents of the video nor decried the misuse of his image. And that's a travesty because the DVD's message is deadly serious and frighteningly real in Baltimore.

The pot-smoking drug dealers in the DVD aren't fledgling actors in some B-movie. They live and ply their trade around town. And snitches or "rats" are bad for their business. But people familiar with the drug trade, players in it or witnesses to it, are critical to the public's business. Police rely on informants and witnesses to help arrest drug dealers. Prosecutors rely on them to help convict dealers. Drug operatives know what's at stake - their livelihood and freedom - and they do what's necessary to preserve both. They threaten witnesses, intimidate their families and worse. Jail doesn't stop them; they simply get a crew member to do the dirty work. Fearful witnesses then refuse to cooperate. They forget what they saw. They change their stories. Or, they disappear and wind up dead. Either way, criminal cases fall apart.

The Stop Snitching video confirms what police and prosecutors have long known about the drug trade: Taking care of business includes taking care of witnesses. It's a primer on today's illicit drug scene, where the signifiers of success include diamond-encrusted watches heavy on a wrist, vintage Cadillac convertibles, a favored hangout, a gun in a waistband, packets of cash in a pocket. And rapping dealers have preserved it on film - all the better for police who are poring over the incriminating videos.

The DVD reinforces the need for stronger measures against those who intimidate witnesses. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has pledged to resubmit a revised bill that will allow certain statements to be introduced into court without requiring the appearance of a witness. But he'll have to champion the measure to overcome opposition from the House Judiciary chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a defense attorney who killed the bill last year. Mr. Ehrlich should send the delegate Stop Snitching. Maybe then he'll get the message.

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