Baltimore police and prosecutors struggle with witness cooperation

Baltimore police and prosecutors struggle with witness cooperation

When it came time to bring to justice the men accused of killing his 1-year-old son, Rashaw Scott wanted nothing to do with the court proceedings.

After Scott refused to come to Baltimore Circuit Court in May, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest. Scott spent the night in jail, took the stand with his hands shackled and refused to answer many of the prosecutor's questions.

Scott never explained his reluctance to testify. But the case has come to symbolize the continuing challenge that Baltimore police and prosecutors face in getting witnesses — and even victims — to cooperate. Of the five defendants in the case, one man was convicted and the jury deadlocked on the other four.

A series of incidents in Baltimore helped to shake confidence in the criminal justice system, authorities and residents say. In 2002, seven members of the Dawson family were killed in a retaliatory firebombing of their East Baltimore home, and three years later the home of a North Baltimore community activist who was reporting drug activity to police was firebombed.

A DVD titled "Stop Snitching" released around that time — featuring an appearance by NBA star Carmelo Anthony — threatened violence against those who cooperate with authorities.

In 2009, a federal witness was killed in Westport after a document provided to a defense attorney was distributed in the neighborhood. Two years later, a witness in a Baltimore drug and gun case was gunned down on the lawn of his home after he refused to give false testimony.

The city has seen fewer public displays of intimidation in recent years, but police and prosecutors say they still struggle to win the cooperation of witnesses. Last week, prosecutors say, a man was chased from the courthouse after whipping out a cellphone and taking pictures of a witness who was testifying in a murder case.

"In Baltimore, the real problem is that every witness is automatically intimidated by the culture of the city," even in the absence of an overt threat, said defense attorney Adam Ruther, who prosecuted homicide and felony cases until leaving the state's attorney's office this spring. "The majority of witnesses that I dealt with said, 'If I [cooperate], somebody is going to come after me. I don't know who, but I'm not going to be safe in my neighborhood.'"

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby highlighted the issue this week in defending her decision to limit participation in a city-backed commission to review homicide cases. She called Baltimore the "home of witness intimidation" and said sharing information about cases would pose too much risk.

The problem continues to block progress in making arrests and holding repeat violent offenders accountable, Mosby said.

"Unfortunately for my constituents, there is a real possibility that pursuing justice on behalf of a slain victim inside the courtroom may produce a second victim outside of it," she wrote in an article in The Baltimore Sun.

Officials from the state's attorney's office said they have been beefing up their efforts to communicate with and protect victims and witnesses.

Mosby, who was elected last year, campaigned on a promise to build a "premier" victim and witness division by shifting resources within the office. She proposed saving money by cutting the agency's lease in a downtown office building and moving operations back to the courthouse.

She ultimately decided not to break the lease, but was able to boost the agency's budget for victim and witness services by nearly 50 percent, to $1.78 million.

That funding increase included the restoration of nine non-attorney community liaison positions, and officials are pursuing grant funding to hire additional advocates to work within specific units, such as the sex offense and family crimes units.

In another change, prosecutors are assigning victim advocates to work with the families of homicide victims even before a suspect is charged.

"Before, if there was no suspect, there was no contact," said Tammy Brown, a spokeswoman for the office. "Now it's our policy to proactively reach out to those families and be the liaison between the [Baltimore Police Department]."

Over the past five years, prosecutors have relocated more than 300 families who were fearful about cooperating. Many others, seeking to avoid participation altogether, choose not to receive services.

Gloria Luckett, who led the office's victim and witness services for seven years until 2012, said she believes witnesses "want to participate in the process."

"But they want to know that 'If I do this, I'm going to be safe, that someone is going to protect me,'" she said.

Luckett said she was responsible for all aspects of helping a witness feel secure, including assisting with drug treatment, housing and employment. Current officials say they've been working to add staff to work in a more specialized way with witnesses. The goal is to build trust with the witnesses — even if the outreach means responding to late-night calls.

AEquitas conducted a Justice Department-funded study of witness intimidation. John Wilkinson, an attorney adviser for the organization, said witnesses and victims should be warned that they are going to be facing intimidation. He said they should be instructed to document any interaction with a defendant that seems threatening: a nasty text message, an angry voice mail, a bribe or a heartfelt apology.

"Witness intimidation is everywhere," Wilkinson said. "It doesn't have to do with any one jurisdiction. It has to do with the type of people involved in these crimes."

Some recent cases paint an unpromising picture, with several uncooperative witnesses. Among those involved was the son of Ronnie "Skinny Suge" Thomas, who is serving a federal sentence after being featured in the "Stop Snitching" video:

Carlos Wheeler, a member of a gang called the "Gucci Boys," was accused of shooting two men in 2013 in retaliation for a fight that occurred in Fells Point. One of the victims was Ronnie Thomas III, who survived.

Wheeler's girlfriend, who allegedly drove him during the shootings, refused to cooperate with prosecutors, so they had her arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder and two counts of attempted murder. A second witness who refused to testify was arrested on a warrant called a "body attachment" to force her to participate in Wheeler's trial.

Despite those challenges, Wheeler was convicted by a jury of murder conspiracy and other charges.

Before that conviction, the younger Thomas went from victim to defendant, charged in a non-fatal shooting on Gilmor Street in March 2014.

Prosecutors sometimes try to withhold information about witnesses until the last possible moment, to maintain their safety. Thomas' attorney challenged that move in his case, saying prosecutors had failed to present evidence regarding specific threats, "perceived or otherwise," that would affect a witness' safety or willingness to testify.

This March, prosecutors identified that witness in court records, when they sought a body attachment to have her come to court.

The witness had "consistently expressed her desire not to testify" against Thomas, Assistant State's Attorney Richard Gibson wrote in court records. In a phone call, he wrote, she told Gibson that she "did not want anything more to do with the case and was not going to testify."

Prosecutors dropped all charges against Thomas on March 30 and he was released from jail.

On May 31, Thomas was gunned down at a desolate intersection in Northeast Baltimore, and two days later Wheeler's brother, Nate, was shot to death while working at a construction site in West Baltimore. Police have not said whether the cases, which remain unsolved, are connected.

Jason Silverstein, who was Carlos Wheeler's attorney, said authorities often give witnesses little incentive to cooperate. He recalled a case in which a client was shot six times, and police collected his belongings and said they would not return them until he identified the attacker.

"You start off that people are generally scared that there is going to be retaliation if they cooperate, but then they get treated so poorly by the police," said Silverstein, a former prosecutor. "Why would you want to cooperate?"

In many cases, Silverstein said, the shooters and their victims know each other and would rather handle the conflict themselves.

"In their opinion, these things are settled in the street. They are not settled in courtrooms," Silverstein said. "They believe there's going to come a time when they're going to see the guy they have a problem with, and they'll take care of it."

Baltimore's homicide review commission is modeled after one in Milwaukee. Prosecutors there have a unit of four investigators dedicated to pursuing charges when threats are made against witnesses, said Deputy District Attorney Patrick Kenney.

They provide services mostly by collaborating with social services agencies and nonprofits. If they must pursue an arrest warrant for an uncooperative witness, Kenney said, they try to arrest them during "business hours" and have a bail set to ensure their return, "rather than have them spend any time in jail."

"The idea is to get them to cooperate, and you don't want to be too antagonistic or adversarial," Kenney said.

Brown, Mosby's spokeswoman, said prosecutors in Baltimore are being given an extra push to document intimidation and pursue charges.

"We want the word on the street that we're not tolerating it."

She said winning trust will take time.

"We need to build that [trust] and show these people that the goal is not only to keep them safe and protect them, but also try to help them rebuilding a life that's maybe better than the life they were currently living."

Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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