Suburbs see some cases of threats against witnesses

Prosecutors say problem is not as widespread as it is in Baltimore

General Assembly

April 07, 2005|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

The voice mail message arrived at 1:30 p.m. on April 28.

"I'm gonna tell you one thing: Baltimore too small," he said. "I know where you be and everything you saying is coming straight back to me. ... This ain't no [expletive] game. You stop playing like it's a [expletive] game."

To the college student who received the message on his cell phone, there was no question what the call was about: a threat to keep him from testifying in a Baltimore County courtroom about a murder he witnessed.

Prosecutors say the case is one of an increasing number of attempts to interfere with witness testimony in criminal cases in suburban areas - giving additional impetus to a bill on the issue moving through the General Assembly.

Yesterday, a key House of Delegates committee approved a bill similar to one that has passed the Senate that would increase penalties for witness intimidation and, in some cases, allow courts to admit testimony from witnesses who do not appear in court.

Suburban prosecutors say they don't see nearly as widespread a problem as Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has described in urging state lawmakers to pass the bill. But, they say, what had traditionally been thought of as a city ailment is finding its way into county courtrooms.

Howard County State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone said his prosecutors see elements of intimidation in almost every homicide case they handle. Last October, for instance, Tjane C. Marshall of Suitland was on trial, charged with fatally shooting his 23-year-old pregnant girlfriend in her Columbia apartment. Marshall told his roommate about the killing, saying, "I wasn't even close enough to the broad to get little splashes on me."

Police had arranged for the roommate to record his conversations with Marshall, and, McCrone said, one recording captured Marshall telling the roommate that if he talked to police, he would become the next victim.

"It was so cavalier, the way he said it," McCrone said. "That was what really struck me about the intimidation." The roommate did testify at trial, and a jury convicted Marshall of first-degree murder.

Harford County prosecutors were shocked and angered when they were forced to drop a weapons charge against a convicted drug dealer who, they said, made arrangements to move the only witness who could testify about his alleged gun possession - something of a witness relocation program gone askew.

"Our witness just disappeared," said Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly. "The defendant's sister had come to her, encouraged her to move away, told her that the defendant would help. This is the stuff we're putting up with - and not just on the big cases."

About a year after the gun case was dismissed, the drug dealer, Milton Tommy Watters Jr., 22, was arrested and convicted of cocaine distribution, Cassilly said. He's serving a 20-year prison sentence.

`Definitely a problem'

In Baltimore County, "it's definitely a problem" Deputy State's Attorney Stephen Bailey said. "Any witness intimidation is a problem because it has the effect of not only adversely affecting the case in which the witness is intimidated, but also affecting people who have no reason to be concerned in cases they are involved in.

"Just a few drops of witness intimidation poison the entire system," he added, "because people have the perception that it's much more widespread than it is and that they're somehow in danger."

Such a perception is evident in the number of subpoenaed witnesses who call the state's attorney's office after receiving summons.

Twenty years ago, Bailey said, it was a rare occurrence. These days, people called to testify in the trial of a defendant accused of writing a bad check call the office to ask whether they have any reason to worry, Bailey said.

Although prosecutors would like to unequivocally be able to say no, there have been instances in recent years of criminal defendants threatening or physically harming witnesses in an attempt to interfere with testimony - even in cases not typically categorized among the most serious.

A Randallstown man was convicted last fall of killing his mother-in-law and her daughter in the basement of their home in New York state to prevent them from testifying against him in a Baltimore County sex abuse case.

Three men are awaiting trial on charges that they beat and choked to death a Woodlawn teenager last summer and then set her body on fire to keep her from testifying in the case of a 24-year-old man accused of having sex with the girl's 13-year-old foster sister.

A Baltimore teenager with a long juvenile record was sentenced late last month as an adult to 28 years in prison for stabbing a boy who he thought had snitched on him in July just outside the Woodlawn police precinct.

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