Silence still stifles justice

Mistrust, violence quiet witnesses

Confronting Crime

The Battle For Baltimore's Future

October 28, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

From his Baltimore jail cell this summer, Ray "Lucky" Williams penned a thank you note to the woman who was supposed to testify against him in a murder trial.

When she didn't show up to court in July, her absence helped to foster enough indecision among jurors to cause a mistrial. And, for that, Williams was grateful.

"In any event, all's well that ends well," Williams wrote to her in a letter dated July 28, as he awaited a retrial. "Thanks for not betraying me."

But Williams, 45, had also written to a friend named "Big Irvin." More sinister in tone, this note highlighted the stubborn problem of witness intimidation in Baltimore and its chilling effect on the criminal justice system. His writings also prompted prosecutors to charge him with another crime: witness intimidation.

"I need you to get the word out," he told Big Irvin in the note that is now part of his court file. "[She] made a 16-page statement telling on everybody in Pig Town and Poe Homes!!! Holler at [her] and tell her to either not appear in court or to change her story if she does."

Three years after Baltimore drew national attention with the release of the street-produced DVD Stop Snitching, witness intimidation remains one of the biggest impediments to solving and successfully prosecuting homicides and shootings in the city and beyond.

Changes to state law have helped authorities battle the problem, but a street culture labeling those who cooperate with police and prosecutors as "rats" and "snitches" remains.

"It's a problem that, for the moment, appears to be here to stay," said city Circuit Judge John M. Glynn, chief judge of the criminal division.

This year alone in the Baltimore area, at least three people have been killed in shootings that police believe were calculated efforts to silence a witness. In July, a few months before he was to testify in a city murder trial, witness Carl Stanley Lackl Jr., 38, was gunned down in front of his Baltimore County home.

"I love my son, and he died a horrible death," said Lackl's mother, Marge Shipley. "My family is very broken."

The less-lethal - and more common - forms of intimidation range from spray-painted graffiti to stare-downs in the courtroom.

About a week ago, a home in Northwest Baltimore was ransacked and vandalized, the words "snitch" and "rat" spray-painted all over the walls. The couple who lived there told police that vandals intended to intimidate their daughter; she was a co-defendant in a robbery case and someone may have feared she was cooperating with police.

Following the publicity generated by the Stop Snitching DVD in late 2004, the General Assembly passed legislation that doubled the potential prison sentence for intimidating a witness and made it possible for prosecutors to put in evidence the tape-recorded statements of witnesses who have gone missing.

Those reforms have produced some real results. In the two years that the law has been on the books, city prosecutors have charged about 175 witness-intimidation cases and used or threatened to use the provision for playing taped statements of absent witnesses in several major cases.

In July, a Baltimore drug dealer was sentenced to 20 years in prison - the maximum penalty - for firing a gunshot into the Reservoir Hill home of a woman who had called the police on him. And in May, a city judge ruled that prosecutors could play for jurors the tape-recorded statement of a reluctant witness even if he didn't show up to testify. The witness came to court after all, and the defendant was convicted.

In many other cases, however, the legislation hasn't generated such ideal outcomes for prosecutors.

Two women who drove a witness in an attempted-murder case to the Police Department so that she could recant her statement were sentenced this week to time served. And city prosecutors' first use of the expanded witness intimidation law was for naught: Murder defendant Tyrone Beane was acquitted in July last year even though jurors heard a taped statement of the absent star witness.

"We didn't figure the law was going to solve the entire problem," said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who for years prodded the legislature to take witness intimidation seriously. "But it gives us an additional tool to use."

Police and prosecutors said they have used other tools, too. The police countered Stop Snitching with a video called Keep Talkin'. Jessamy said she and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings recently taped a public service announcement pleading for residents who have witnessed crime to come forward and cooperate.

Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, have handled some of the most serious cases involving witness intimidation.

Last week, two Frederick County men were charged with killing someone who had been subpoenaed in a federal drug investigation.

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