Maryland's second highest court has upheld the murder conviction of a gang member who shot a man six times in February 2009 on orders from a Bloods leader. The suspect had contested the state's introduction of gang testimony, arguing it prejudiced the jury.
Prosecutors are increasingly using this tactic to help jurors understand the context for some of the violence in Baltimore. In this case, it helped because three witnesses, including one who told police the suspect bragged about the killing and two others who identified Tyrone Burris as the shooter, recanted at trial.
The Court of Special Appeals ruled [read complete opinion here] that the testimony of a police officer who is an expert on gangs "was crucial in describing the history, structure and practices of the gang -- the BGF -- and thereby explaining why [Burris] would act at a gang leader's request, and explaining the basis for the witnesses' fear."
Burris, a member of the Black Guerilla Family, was convicted in the killing of Hubert Dickerson Jr. in the 2500 block of West Baltimore St. At trial, prosecutors had to contend not only with recanting witnesses, but others who gave contradictory testimony.
One witness, Dominick Falcon, told detectives that Burris, known as "69," was "bragging about killing a boy on Baltimore Street. He was saying that's how you were supposed to do the job, not a half job." Falcon testified that a gang leader known as "Bam" ordered Burris to kill Dickerson.
"Yea, he like a hit man for real," Falcon told police, referring to Burris. In court, Falcon said he was lying when he told all this to police detectives. Prosecutors played his police interview for the jury.
Prosecutors put Baltimore Police Sgt. Dennis Workley on the witness stand. He testified about the BGF, how it's run like a business and that its members control "most of the jails in the state," from the flow of drugs to information.
Workley testified that tattoos on Burris' body all have meaning. The words "Baltimore" and "Franklin" on his right and left forearms, for examples, show where he works. The "187" on his left arm is for the California penal code for homicide. The "OG" on his arm means "Original Gangster." Another tattoo of weapons, Workley said, stands for "death before dishonor."
Burris' defense attorney objected to Workley's testimony, saying it "poisons the well for the jury."
The judge instructed the jury this way: "Now, you have heard evidence of the defendant's involvement in gang activity. The defendant is not charged with a crime involving being a member of any gang. Information about the defendant's involvement if any with a gang was allowed only for you to understand the relationship between the defendant and other parties in this case."