Dawson family survivors file lawsuit against officials, police

$14 million action claims activists weren't protected

February 18, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

Survivors of the slain Dawson family have filed a $14 million lawsuit accusing elected leaders and law enforcement officials of failing to prevent the firebombing that killed seven family members in 2002.

The legal action, which argues that the city encourages residents to report crime without providing adequate protection for their safety, marks the latest chapter in Baltimore's troubled history of witness intimidation.

The suit, filed late Tuesday in city Circuit Court, stems from a blaze set in the East Baltimore rowhouse of Angela and Carnell Dawson on Oct. 16, 2002. The couple later died along with five of their children. Darrell L. Brooks, the arsonist who pleaded guilty in federal court, is serving a life sentence in prison without parole.

"After the Dawsons survived repeated physical assaults and a firebombing in retaliation for reporting criminal activity - all of which the City was aware - the City still failed to provide reasonable police and witness protection services," the lawsuit said.

Records showed the couple made dozens of calls to police from their home in the 1400 block of East Preston St. in the months before the final assault against their home.

Specifically, the suit seeks to have the city back up its "Believe" campaign with public safety programs to safeguard crime watchdogs, require that the city's prosecutors follow its witness protection procedures and better train city police officers about how to protect witnesses. It also seeks $14 million in damages.

Seven murders in a single East Baltimore family shocked the city, setting off a still-contentious debate over how best to keep criminals from retaliating against witnesses.

Despite consoling words from city leaders and efforts to improve the witness protection system, family members still seethe over what they describe as a preventable tragedy.

"I think that the city should have done something to protect them and that it just did not value our lives," Lakeesha Bowell, daughter of Angela and Carnell Dawson and the only surviving member of the immediate family, said in a statement yesterday.

Bowell, 19, and four other representatives of the Dawson family are represented by an attorney at the law firm of former O.J. Simpson defense counsel Johnnie Cochran, and by Kathleen Behan, the partner in charge of pro bono work at the high-powered Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter.

The suit names as defendants the state of Maryland; the governor; Mayor Martin O'Malley; the City Council; the Police Department; acting police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm; one of his predecessors, Edward T. Norris; the state's attorney; one of her assistants; and a host of unnamed police officers.

City prosecutors have said witness intimidation continues to pervade almost every aspect of criminal cases.

For the Dawsons, the signs came early and often. Members of the family were slapped and their home was vandalized, including an earlier, nonfatal firebombing, according to police reports.

Angela Dawson had been a vocal neighborhood force against drug dealers, police say. Prosecutors said she rejected the city's offer to relocate the family days before she was killed.

That claim was sharply disputed in the lawsuit this week.

The state's attorney's office in Baltimore "operated the witness protection program in derogation of the program's requirements and improperly allocated witness protection program funding in accordance with a system of favors rather than need," according to the suit.

Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, reiterated yesterday that the Dawsons rejected the relocation offer from a prosecutor, and that is why the procedure to move the family was never initiated.

Citing the pending lawsuit, other city officials declined to answer questions yesterday, instead issuing two statements.

"The City of Baltimore is reviewing the complaint, and we will respond at the appropriate time in court," Baltimore City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said.

O'Malley, who has called the Dawsons martyrs in the city's struggle against drug-related crime, added: "The murder of the Dawson family is a tragedy that none of us will ever forget. I have nothing but respect and empathy for the survivors.

"Whatever the result of this lawsuit," he continued, "the Dawson family will always serve as a reminder of the courage of the people of Baltimore as we continue in our struggle for justice against the absolute hate that claimed their lives."

But the lawsuit contends that the mayor's signature public relations campaign has been a hollow effort.

But the Dawson case has led to a number of new efforts and a push for additional legislation.

After the blaze, city agencies launched more than 90 initiatives to help the neighborhood. And in the Harwood neighborhood, police acted swiftly last month to remove and protect community association president Edna McAbier after her home was firebombed. Five men, some with histories of drug dealing, are awaiting trial in federal court on charges they attacked her home because she called police about neighborhood drug dealing.

In Annapolis yesterday, legislators took additional committee testimony yesterday on a witness-protection bill inspired in part by the Dawson case.

The measure pushed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and supported by Jessamy would, for example, increase the maximum penalty for witness intimidation to 20 years in prison.

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