Another weapon in war on witnesses

`Snitch' DVD: City prosecutors say threats and attacks permeate nearly all the violence cases they handle.

December 12, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Just before 2 a.m. on Jan. 15, four men cloaked in ski masks and dark clothing kick in the front door of an apartment in Hampden.

Two point revolvers at an 11-year-old boy who had been asleep on a sofa in the living room. The others burst into a bedroom and take aim at the boy's mother, who sleeps near her toddler.

"Jesse better not testify in court," they say to the woman. "Or we're going to kill you and your sister." They rip one phone out of the wall, snatch up a portable phone and leave.

The woman's fiance, Anthony Black - aka Jesse - would take the witness stand that spring in the trial of two former associates in a violent East Baltimore drug ring. His statements to police laid the groundwork, prosecutors say, to send those two and nine others to prison.

On the streets of Baltimore, Anthony Black is a rat. A snitch.

And what happened to his family early that January morning is the kind of drug-culture self-policing that a recent series of locally produced, documentary-style DVDs, including one called Stop Snitching, seems to advocate.

Intimidation has ingrained itself in Baltimore's judicial system, prosecutors and judges say, and there's evidence of it everywhere: in recorded wiretap conversations, in interviews with petrified victims and sometimes even in the courtrooms themselves.

The latest methods include the Baltimore DVD series and international Web sites, such as www.whosarat.com, devoted to disclosing the identity of "snitches." Judges say they sometimes confiscate cell phones to keep courtroom observers from instantly sending text-messages that relay a witness' testimony to people on the streets.

"Think how bold criminals must be to make a DVD," says Baltimore Circuit Judge John M. Glynn. "It shows that threatening snitches has become mainstream - so much so that they make a DVD joking about it."

Baltimore prosecutors say that witness intimidation permeates nearly all of the 300 nonfatal shooting cases and 120 murder cases they handle each year. About one-quarter of last year's gun cases were dropped because direct or perceived intimidation created problems with witness testimony, prosecutors say.

In the past 3 1/2 months, a pair of detectives assigned to the city state's attorney's office have had 74 requests to hunt down missing witnesses.

Witness intimidation has grown so pervasive that city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pushed a bill last legislative session to toughen penalties and change courtroom procedures.

The bill was killed in the House Judiciary Committee, but Ehrlich plans to reintroduce it next session.

This time, he and Jessamy have a DVD to show legislators. "The same way the criminals are using this DVD to get their message across on the street to witnesses," she says, "we as law enforcement should use it to demonstrate the degree of the problem."

Stop Snitching, one of eight such DVDs produced by a man calling himself Skinny Suge, is a two-hour documentary filled with symbols of the drug culture - expensive cars and watches, guns and stacks of money - and profanity-laced rants against those who cooperate with law enforcement. The brief appearance of NBA star Carmelo Anthony, a Baltimore native, has popularized the DVD.

The message to witnesses is clear: The DVD's back cover features what appear to be three dead bodies above the phrase "snitch prevention."

In a freestyle rap on the DVD, one man flashes his friend's gun on camera and says, "They're giving evidence to the pigs. I'll ... destroy your house like you had 100 elephants in your crib."

Such bravado, says Nicolle Krivda, a Baltimore prosecutor in the narcotics unit, is "exactly what we hear every day on wiretaps."

When Lawrence Chambers pleaded guilty this summer to conspiracy to distribute heroin, prosecutors read into the record parts of a wiretap transcript that included conversations between Chambers and his associates in which they make guesses at an informant's identity and discuss trying to find that person.

"It used to just be that you'd beat someone up, an old-fashioned sort of roughing up," Krivda says. Now, witnesses fear for their lives.

Anthony Black, whose family was threatened in January, took the stand in Baltimore Circuit Court in early May.

He had been a lieutenant in a drug ring in the Monument Street and Milton Avenue corridor. Had he not worked with police and prosecutors, he could have faced a 40-year sentence. Instead, he is serving eight years for a conspiracy to distribute cocaine conviction.

"I cooperated because I didn't want to go away forever and a day, amen," he testified.

But becoming a snitch came with a price. His family was ushered into a witness assistance program after the January break-in and has since permanently moved out of the city, where the 11-year-old had been an honor student.

Other times, prosecutors say, witnesses are shot or even killed.

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