As Boston boosts witness protection, Baltimore takes the legal route

April 13, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

BOSTON - As trial began in November for two men accused of killing a 10-year-old girl at a park, a pair of the defendants' suspected gang members slipped into the courtroom wearing "stop snitching" T-shirts.

In August, police stumbled across a street documentary as it was being filmed outside a school south of the city. The props: "stop snitching" T-shirts, grand jury transcripts listing witness' names and a loaded gun.

And the lyrics on a CD made by a murder suspect and his amateur rap group, Full Blooded, condemn people who cooperate with police and prosecutors, even naming "rats" in their housing project.

These sophisticated efforts at witness intimidation in this Northeast city bear striking resemblance to what's happening in Baltimore, where a homemade DVD with appearances by NBA star Carmelo Anthony and gun-flashing criminals was released on the streets in the fall. It, too, was called Stop Snitching.

But the two cities have taken different approaches to tackling the witness intimidation problem: Baltimore's top prosecutor, Patricia C. Jessamy, has pushed for cost-free changes legal changes to permit testimony from witnesses too scared to attend court, while Boston's lead prosecutor has called for the creation of a $1 million statewide witness protection program.

"When we need to actually protect a witness, it's going to require funds," said Daniel F. Conley, district attorney of Suffolk County, which includes Boston. "There's just no getting around that."

The Maryland legislation, written by the governor and co-sponsored by more than 150 lawmakers, passed Monday night. It was criticized by some politicians and defense attorneys who said it did nothing to protect witnesses - only arming prosecutors with more ways to gain convictions.

Next year, some state legislators and Jessamy said they will shift their focus to improving witness protection, a plan more like Conley's in Massachusetts.

Boston, with about the same population as Maryland's largest city, logged 64 homicides last year, about one-fourth of Baltimore's total. But a surge in gangs has brought intimidation so brazen that it includes posting grand jury transcripts on doors throughout a housing project.

Many unsolved cases

Police and prosecutors in Boston say uncooperative witnesses are a major reason about two-thirds of last year's homicides remain unsolved.

Conley said he was surprised to learn from his gang prosecutors that 90 percent of their cases involve some form of intimidation. He heard how a man was shot while coaching a basketball game - and no one saw anything. Same story for a 10-year-old hit by a stray bullet during a crowded football practice.

Sometimes, Conley said, the intimidation comes right into the courtrooms.

Two young men who police said were trying to shoot a member of a rival gang accidentally struck and killed 10-year-old Trina Persad on June 29, 2002. She had been playing at a park named for a 9-year-old killed years earlier in gang crossfire.

In Trina's murder, police arrested two suspected members of a street gang called "MIC," an acronym for the streets Magnolia, Intervale and Columbia that border their turf. Right away, prosecutors logged their concerns about witness intimidation.

They sought in a motion Oct. 15, 2002, to keep the witnesses' identities secret: "There are witnesses in this case who live in the neighborhoods where MIC exists and operates. The Commonwealth seeks in its motion for discovery protective order to protect these witnesses from intimidation and fear."

Gangs fill courtroom

When the trial began in November, suspected MIC members filled the courtroom benches, two of them wearing "stop snitching" T-shirts. The main witnesses still testified.

One man was acquitted, and the other's case ended in an unusual mistrial - prosecutors discovered that as many as five jurors had lied about their criminal backgrounds.

"Our job as prosecutors is much more difficult in urban settings like Boston and Baltimore, where witnesses are subject to intimidation and fear," Conley said. "We somehow have to get the message out that cooperating with us is not snitching, it's being a law-abiding citizen."

One way to do that, he said, is by ensuring their safety. Suffolk County has no formal witness protection or assistance program. When witnesses are in danger, prosecutors must cobble together money to help them.

Conley has been working with Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and Sen. Jarrett T. Barrios to change that. Both politicians propose a statewide program to be administered by the Massachusetts attorney general's office; Healey has designated $800,000 for the first year, while Barrios suggested $750,000.

Even though the Massachusetts budget, like Maryland's, is tight, Healey said the money to help witnesses is crucial. It's an issue near to her: In the early 1990s, she researched witness intimidation problems in American cities, including Baltimore, for a Justice Department study.

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