Imagine trying to defend a client accused of killing someone who comes to court with the word "murder" tattooed across his neck. Or trying to convince a jury that the suspect is really a good guy even though his best friend knows him only as "Bloody Batman."
With gangs gaining strength in Baltimore, nicknames are gaining popularity on the street, and more often than not it's a nickname rather than a real name by which many are known. And law enforcement authorities, especially the feds, don't hesitate to use the monikers.
Here's a sample from one recent indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore: charged were Sticks, Face, Tink, Pudge, Fat Boy, Slinky, Big Boy, Big Man, Gotti, Mud, Wimp, Nitty and Zitty.
The Baltimore Sun's Tricia Bishop wrote about gang nicknames last year, and the list of new ones keeps growing. More and more, defense attorneys and prosecutors say, the nicknames reflect violence rather than a personality trait or physical characteristic.
In the past, Baltimore had "Peanut King." Now, "Murder" and "Killer" are becoming more common as nicknames, not to mention "Savage" and various forms of the word "bloody." Young men tattoo the names to their necks and arms, or ink teardrops under their eyes, one for each person they've killed.
The very names and symbols reflect guilt.
Defense attorney Warren A. Brown said that recently he put a Band-Aid on a young client's neck to cover the tattooed word "murder." But prosecutors got the judge to order the covering removed, giving jurors a full view of how the defendant wanted to be known.
While the Mafia seems to choose names that make for good headlines, the suspect drug dealers in Baltimore have a more narrow approach. "The monikers are for the world they live in," Brown said. "They long ago opted out of the mainstream. The names they choose are for their own little world, where they want to be known as 'Black,' or 'Killer.'
"In their world, that's not a bad thing," Brown said. "But of course when they come to court, it hurts."
Nicknames have always been a part of criminal lore, often helping elevate criminals to mythical stature: Jack the Ripper, Scarface, Blackbeard, Doctor Death, Son of Sam, the Angel of Death, to name a few well-known examples.
Some nicknames can make criminals sounds more dangerous — or more folksy. Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi seems self-explanatory, but there's also the "Dapper Don," the softer side of Mafia kingpin John Gotti, and of course "Pretty Boy" Floyd.
Amir Jones helps the Living Classrooms Foundation round up people on the street for so-called "gang call-ins," in which law enforcement officers lecture troublemakers about prison and police intelligence of their activities.
Jones said gang members want recognition, but only in their world. He said some have two nicknames used in different parts of town. "They don't take the future into account," said Jones, referring to what their names might mean to a jury. "Whatever they're doing at that particular moment, that's what's real to them. Their audience is their own group."
Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said that "nobody gets convicted just for having an evil nickname." But at the same time he noted, "It is useful for the jury to know that the defendants adopt names that suggest crime and violence, because how they communicate with each other demonstrates the nature of their relationship."
Rosenstein said that one suspect being interviewed by a prosecutor insisted he didn't kill a man with a first name of Shannon, but quickly conceded to knowing the victim by his nickname, "Shamrock."
The prosecutor said he can't recall ever being challenged by defense attorneys on using nicknames in indictments or in court. But one Michigan lawyer successfully argued last year to strike the name "Fat Dog" from the indictment charging Jeff Garvin Smith, the alleged head of the Devils Diciples [sic] motorcycle gang, with being a felon in possession of body armor.
The federal judge issued an order containing a lone sentence. It called the reference to the nickname "Fat Dog" irrelevant. Prosecutors later withdrew the charges against "Fat Dog."