The plight of Edna McAbier, the North Baltimore community activist who testified against drug dealers and then felt forced by fear to move out of her neighborhood, continued to spark dispute yesterday as politicians, law enforcement officials and neighborhood residents debated whether her absence was still necessary.
The police commander for the Northern District said he believes McAbier may now move home safely, but added that "it's a personal decision and only one she can make." Mayor Martin O'Malley said it was "upsetting" that she wouldn't go back to her home but also said he didn't blame the former Harwood community association president.
"Who can?" he asked, referring to a violent drug culture that still dominates many city neighborhoods.
McAbier, 60, revealed in a Sun article this week that, on the advice of law enforcement officials, she has permanently left the troubled neighborhood where she had lived and volunteered for more than 30 years.
McAbier's East Lorraine Avenue home was firebombed Jan. 15, 2005. Evidence at trial showed that drug dealers retaliated against the community association president for reporting their activities to police. Eight defendants in the case were later convicted in U.S. District Court and imprisoned.
Despite the convictions, fear still abounds in Harwood. Too scared to be identified in print, one resident of East 27th Street said yesterday that the attack against McAbier "was bad. It makes you scared, too, to report something" to police.
Added City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke: "We miss her leadership terribly. It has always been as if Edna was being incarcerated for being the victim of her own good work."
Echoing comments made by state and federal prosecutors who worked on McAbier's case, the mayor said that his administration has worked to beef up witness protection programs.
"We will do everything we can to support people who are standing up to criminals in their neighborhoods," O'Malley said. He also acknowledged that there is still much to be done.
"We would all like to see this transformation happen sooner," he said. "But we are doing things to improve every day."
When asked to explain why more hadn't been done to enable McAbier to return to her home, the mayor said: "This is just the reality of living." He added that he didn't think it was the reality for the entire city, however, calling her situation "unique."
Federal law enforcement officials agreed that McAbier's case was unusual, though they declined to comment directly on the talks leading to her leaving.
It was rare, they said, for prosecutors to relocate an "innocent victim" - or someone who was not directly related to or associated with a defendant. The vast majority of the witnesses in federal cases eventually return to their homes, according to prosecutors.
"I think the important message is how rare it is for anyone to retaliate against a witness," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said.
The message resonated at the Comfort Zone, where barbershop owner Pamela McDaniel said she thought the convictions set an important example.
"I grew up in the quote-unquote hood," she said, taking a break from cutting hair yesterday. McAbier should be able to return to Harwood, McDaniel said, but not if she has grave concerns about her safety.
City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said she remains committed to the idea of a new state witness protection program that would mirror what U.S. marshals have at the federal level, according to her staff.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings proposed legislation that would give states money to start their own witness protection programs. Jurisdictions that have recorded 100 or more homicides would be eligible for this funding, according to officials.
For now, Jessamy's office must call in sheriff's deputies to protect witnesses. The deputies, who transport witnesses to and from court, also accompany the witnesses to their homes when they pack and leave for relocation.
"Almost all our witnesses who participate in the program end up relocating from their homes to another location either in the Baltimore metro area or sometimes out of town," Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office, wrote in an E-mail yesterday.
Despite McAbier's move, Rosenstein emphasized yesterday that the outcome in her case - one of the eight defendants convicted received an 80-year prison sentence - should serve as a stern warning that any attempt to intimidate a witness would be met with swift and punishing justice.
He said he would not discuss who, if anyone, told McAbier to move out of her home. McAbier, a state worker who is living in an undisclosed community, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Inside Harwood, the future remains uncertain. Homicides have increased from two in the first nine months of last year to six in the same period this year, according to police statistics.
Robberies increased from six to 12 in the same period. Theft from vehicles jumped from 17 to 30 and burglaries from 26 to 35.