Invisible lives

Our view: At Lamont Davis’ trial, it was hard to tell the victims from the perps

all these young people have been betrayed by society’s indifference and neglect

April 09, 2010

Baltimore City Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin had her hands full last week just getting potential witnesses to behave during the trial of Lamont Davis, the 17-year-old accused of critically injuring a 5-year-old girl with a stray bullet aimed at another teen during an argument in July.

One teenage witness had to be ordered to answer prosecutors' questions; another changed her story so improbably that the judge was forced to assume she was lying. The young man police described as the target of the shooting said he couldn't even remember the incident.

And in a most unexpected turn of events, the 16-year old mother of Mr. Davis' two children, who apparently was at the center of last summer's dispute, had to be brought back into the courtroom in handcuffs after she tried to flee the building during a break in testimony.

This month, Baltimore's police are celebrating a historic reduction in homicides and gun crimes. The city saw only 40 murders in the first three months of the year, a rate not seen in decades. Even as many other cities have seen a spike in crime, Baltimore is getting safer. But whatever the police have done to engineer this turnaround, it became clear in Judge Rasin's courtroom last week that the poisonous culture that has fed Baltimore's violence remains a powerful force.

The difficulty of conducting a trial under such circumstances — one key witness never even bothered to show up, forcing Judge Rasin to issue a warrant for his arrest — surely reflected Baltimore's dysfunctional "stop snitching" code of silence that too often prevents police and prosecutors from bringing people suspected of committing violent crimes to justice. It also highlighted the toxic peer culture that glorifies lethal force as the ultimate arbiter of disputes.

Beyond that, however, the Davis trial brought into painful view all the abnormal and unhealthy patterns of interpersonal and group behavior that have ravaged poor minority communities across the country, putting a mirror to the self-defeating, self-inflicted wounds of a frustrated and despairing economic underclass for which most Americans refuse to take any responsibility whatsoever.

That's why the more one examined the proceedings, the harder it became to distinguish the victims from the perpetrators. They were all victims in one way or another.

Certainly Raven Wyatt, the carefree youngster struck in the head by a bullet as she walked home from the store, was a wholly innocent bystander whose life will forever be marked by last summer's vicious act. One can hope for nothing less than her speedy and complete recovery.

But isn't Tradon Hicks, the young man Mr. Davis allegedly targeted in the assault, also a victim — not only because he received a minor wound to the forearm but also because he is obviously so intimidated by the street's twisted moral code that he fears to even identify his alleged attacker?

Or what about the two teenage girls so terrified by the prospect of retaliation, they may have been willing to perjure themselves in court? Or Dynashaya Hall, the teen mother of Mr. Davis' children, who tried to flee rather than testify against a partner with a history of violence, and then failed to show up in court at all the next day? Even Mr. Davis, who's been in and out of institutions since he was 10 and who seems never to have had a normal home life?

Police and prosecutors may see them all as prevaricators and obstructionists, but at bottom they come off as weak and frightened teenagers in over their heads against a system they neither trust nor understand. And they have good reason to be afraid. Every public institution they've ever encountered has failed them — the schools, the welfare agencies, the state's broken juvenile justice system. For most, it appears, not even their parents were willing to show up with them in court.

It is painful to watch what is happening to these young people, which is why most Americans simply treat them as if they were invisible except when they commit some spectacular crime. It's far easier to ignore the desperate conditions out of which such crimes arise than it is to try to change those conditions. And because crime rates are generally down, most people are content to simply blame the poor for their problems.

But we're all responsible for the tragedy unfolding in our cities, and we can hardly claim complete innocence in the matter. It is an evil we have long tolerated through willful blindness and practiced neglect. The real question is, does our refusal to recognize it even in the shooting of little Raven Wyatt make us one of its victims — or one of the perps?

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