Many in city decline aid

some accept but don't take situation seriously

Witness protection available, not always taken

December 01, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

John P. Dowery Jr. couldn't stay away from the family he loved and the East Baltimore neighborhood he called home. Angela and Carnell Dawson Jr. couldn't bear the thought of moving their five children out of their family home on Preston Street.

As payback for their repeated calls to the police, local drug dealers firebombed the Dawson house in 2002, killing the entire family. Dowery, 38, was shot to death near his old home on Thanksgiving, and police and the FBI are investigating whether he was killed because he was to be a witness in a federal drug case.

Cooperating with authorities - though vital to the criminal justice system - can be dangerous.

The Baltimore state's attorney's office runs a witness assistance program that provides short-distance relocation and vouchers for food and transportation to court. With a staff of two and an annual budget of $500,000, it's not nearly as extensive as the secretive identity-changing operation the federal government uses.

But many Baltimore witnesses aren't accepting help. Some, like the Dawsons, refuse to leave their dangerous neighborhoods. Still more witnesses, like Dowery, participate only halfway, agreeing to relocate but returning to their old haunts, witness coordinators say.

This year, prosecutors have referred 238 people to the witness assistance program. More than one-fourth never even learned about the assistance available because they did not meet with witness coordinators. And of the 165 families that the coordinators have helped this year, only 31 agreed to enter safe housing.

Statistics from last year showed an even worse rate of assistance, with 107 of the 298 referred witnesses refusing to meet with witness coordinators.

Gloria Luckett, one of two witness coordinators for the city state's attorney's office, said she thinks of witnesses as family, talking or visiting with many of them on a daily basis. Sometimes, she has to use a tough-love approach. "We have to tell some witnesses, `This is not a joke. People are serious when they're charged with something, and they do not want to go to prison,'" she said.

After watching his friend rob drug dealers in his East Baltimore neighborhood and then overhearing the dealers' bosses discuss killing the robber, Dowery agreed to become a witness in a city murder case.

Dowery was shot at least six times outside his home in October 2005 in what police believe was an attempt to silence him, but he testified anyway. When the case became federal this year, he agreed to help with that, too.

Even after being shot last year, Dowery was reluctant to move into a safe house, said authorities who helped him. He eventually agreed, and city police and prosecutors helped him and some of his family move outside city limits. Many of his nine children remained with other relatives in his old neighborhood.

Federal authorities provided him witness assistance when they took over the case, but sources would not say how much aid they gave Dowery or for how long.

But Dowery ignored warnings to stay out of his old neighborhood, going back to visit his mother, his children and other relatives. He was there Thanksgiving when he was shot to death at the Kozy Korner bar.

"You can give someone all the witness protection you want, but if someone wants to go back to their neighborhood, what can you do?" said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who has proposed legislation to beef up local witness protection programs.

Still, Cummings said, giving up on efforts to protect witnesses would be tantamount to dismantling the criminal justice system.

Cummings introduced legislation that would help give states a version of witness protection more like the federal program. The legislation has languished for almost two years in a House subcommittee, but with the Democrats about to assume power in Washington, Cummings said he plans to reintroduce it in January.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has said she supports Cummings' bill. She said she wants witness protection to be handled statewide and run by the Maryland State Police, instead of individual state's attorney's offices. The goal, she said, would be to give Baltimore witnesses the same sense of security that federal witnesses have.

Since the U.S. initiative began in 1970, more than 7,500 federal witnesses and more than 9,500 family members have entered the identity-changing program, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.

Along with their new identities, those witnesses and their families typically receive housing, medical care and job training until settling into their new lives.

U.S. prosecutors in each state also have money for emergency witness assistance in federal cases.

Stephen Hess, who coordinates the emergency witness assistance program in Maryland, said those witnesses are relocated for no more than 30 days and provided no more than $4,000 to cover expenses. Last fiscal year, federal prosecutors in Maryland gave emergency assistance in 18 cases.

Sun reporter Matthew Dolan contributed to this article.

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