John P. Dowery Jr. knew better than to go back home to Bartlett Avenue. It's where he was shot six times in 2005 after agreeing to testify as a witness in a murder case, or, in street terms, to "snitch."
But it was Thanksgiving, and he wanted to see his family. So the 38-year-old father of nine went back to East Baltimore once more in 2006. He feasted at his aunt's house and spent time with his kids. Then he went down the street to the Kozy Korner bar, where he was shot to death.
On Wednesday, a trial is set to begin against two men accused in Dowery's killing and a third man charged in his earlier shooting and in the killing of another federal witness. It's the third witness-murder case appearing in Baltimore federal court within a month, and the second one where death is the maximum penalty upon conviction.
In April, 61-year-old Nancy Jean Siegel was sentenced to 33 years in prison for killing an elderly man to keep her financial frauds secret. And a week ago, 24-year-old Patrick Byers Jr. was spared the death penalty when a jury sentenced him to four life terms for ordering the killing of murder witness Carl Lackl.
Baltimore is notorious for witness intimidation. It's the backdrop for the underground DVD series Stop Snitchin', which encourages terrorizing those who cooperate with law enforcement.
Local gang members regularly show up at city trials to stare down jurors and would-be witnesses. And sidewalk beatings are routine.
In one case, an entire family was wiped out when drug dealers firebombed their Baltimore home in 2002.
"One of the biggest challenges that prosecutors face in violent crime, particularly in Baltimore, is that witnesses and victims frequently are intimidated and therefore unwilling to cooperate," said Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein.
In response, the state has stepped up penalties for those who intimidate would-be testifiers, and both Rosenstein and city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy have made such cases a priority, hoping to send the message that intimidation will not be tolerated.
And in March, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings introduced a bill that would allocate federal money for local witness protection. Without the testimony of witnesses, "a case can basically disappear overnight," Cummings said at the time.
Dowery knew what he was up against when he chose to testify after a friend was killed for robbing a drug dealer in 2004.
Dowery grew up in East Baltimore. He saw the crime on the streets, he hung out with criminals, and he was a felon himself, facing 10 years if convicted on federal handgun charges.
Yet he still came forward, in part to avenge his friend and in part to help himself: He hoped his pending sentence would be reduced.
He was put in a safe house for protection, and the government helped pay for an apartment in Baltimore County to keep him from the dangerous streets, but he kept returning, despite threatening phone calls and surviving one attempt on his life.
According to the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office, Melvin Gilbert, now 34, and co-defendant Darron Goods, 24, ultimately killed Dowery to prevent his cooperation with a federal investigation into their gang's drug trafficking.
Prosecutors allege that James Dinkins, 37, shot Dowery a year earlier and killed two others, including a man who the gang thought was cooperating with investigators in an unrelated case. The defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Three others have pleaded guilty to related gang crimes, and the disposition of the case against a seventh defendant has not yet been made public. All of the defendants are alleged to be members of a Baltimore drug gang known as "Special," which prosecutors say is responsible for at least five murders.
During a motion hearing Monday, the men on trial appeared relaxed. Dinkins mouthed "I love you" to one woman in the courtroom, and Goods waved to another, flashing a gold-toothed grin.
The witness-killing allegations are "what's driving" the case, said Gilbert's attorney, Arcangelo M. Tuminelli. His client may be guilty of certain drug activity, but the evidence doesn't support witness murder, he said.
"Obviously, there has been concern recently in Baltimore, both in the state and federal courts," Tuminelli said.
"But in this case, we honestly believe, at least with our client, Melvin Gilbert, that the government may have some difficulty showing that," Tuminelli said.
An attorney for Goods declined to comment before the trial begins, and Dinkins' attorney could not be reached.
The defendants, charges
Seven alleged members of the Baltimore drug-trafficking gang called "Special" were indicted on federal drug and witness-murder charges. The trial for three of them begins Wednesday:
James Dinkins, 37 - Charged with two murders. Faces the death penalty if convicted.
Melvin Gilbert, 34 - Charged with two murders. Faces the death penalty if convicted.
Darron Goods, 24 - Charged with using a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime resulting in death. Faces a maximum of life in prison if convicted.
Cornell Booker, 26 - Pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute heroin and was sentenced to 66 months in prison.
Brothers Tamall Parker, 22, and Tracy Love, 24 - Pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and use of a firearm in a drug trafficking crime resulting in death. They face a maximum of life in prison.
Randy McLean Jr., 32 - Charged with using a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. He faces a maximum of life in prison. Any plea agreement has not yet been made public.