Baltimore Sun

Another weapon in war on witnesses

Just before 2 a.m. on Jan. 15, four men cloaked in ski masks and dark clothing kick in the front door of an apartment in Hampden.

Two point revolvers at an 11-year-old boy who had been asleep on a sofa in the living room. The others burst into a bedroom and take aim at the boy's mother, who sleeps near her toddler.

"Jesse better not testify in court," they say to the woman. "Or we're going to kill you and your sister." They rip one phone out of the wall, snatch up a portable phone and leave.

The woman's fiance, Anthony Black - aka Jesse - would take the witness stand that spring in the trial of two former associates in a violent East Baltimore drug ring. His statements to police laid the groundwork, prosecutors say, to send those two and nine others to prison.

On the streets of Baltimore, Anthony Black is a rat. A snitch.

And what happened to his family early that January morning is the kind of drug-culture self-policing that a recent series of locally produced, documentary-style DVDs, including one called Stop Snitching, seems to advocate.

Intimidation has ingrained itself in Baltimore's judicial system, prosecutors and judges say, and there's evidence of it everywhere: in recorded wiretap conversations, in interviews with petrified victims and sometimes even in the courtrooms themselves.

The latest methods include the Baltimore DVD series and international Web sites, such as, devoted to disclosing the identity of "snitches." Judges say they sometimes confiscate cell phones to keep courtroom observers from instantly sending text-messages that relay a witness' testimony to people on the streets.

"Think how bold criminals must be to make a DVD," says Baltimore Circuit Judge John M. Glynn. "It shows that threatening snitches has become mainstream - so much so that they make a DVD joking about it."

Baltimore prosecutors say that witness intimidation permeates nearly all of the 300 nonfatal shooting cases and 120 murder cases they handle each year. About one-quarter of last year's gun cases were dropped because direct or perceived intimidation created problems with witness testimony, prosecutors say.

In the past 3 1/2 months, a pair of detectives assigned to the city state's attorney's office have had 74 requests to hunt down missing witnesses.

Witness intimidation has grown so pervasive that city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pushed a bill last legislative session to toughen penalties and change courtroom procedures.

The bill was killed in the House Judiciary Committee, but Ehrlich plans to reintroduce it next session.

This time, he and Jessamy have a DVD to show legislators. "The same way the criminals are using this DVD to get their message across on the street to witnesses," she says, "we as law enforcement should use it to demonstrate the degree of the problem."

Stop Snitching, one of eight such DVDs produced by a man calling himself Skinny Suge, is a two-hour documentary filled with symbols of the drug culture - expensive cars and watches, guns and stacks of money - and profanity-laced rants against those who cooperate with law enforcement. The brief appearance of NBA star Carmelo Anthony, a Baltimore native, has popularized the DVD.

The message to witnesses is clear: The DVD's back cover features what appear to be three dead bodies above the phrase "snitch prevention."

In a freestyle rap on the DVD, one man flashes his friend's gun on camera and says, "They're giving evidence to the pigs. I'll ... destroy your house like you had 100 elephants in your crib."

Such bravado, says Nicolle Krivda, a Baltimore prosecutor in the narcotics unit, is "exactly what we hear every day on wiretaps."

When Lawrence Chambers pleaded guilty this summer to conspiracy to distribute heroin, prosecutors read into the record parts of a wiretap transcript that included conversations between Chambers and his associates in which they make guesses at an informant's identity and discuss trying to find that person.

"It used to just be that you'd beat someone up, an old-fashioned sort of roughing up," Krivda says. Now, witnesses fear for their lives.

Anthony Black, whose family was threatened in January, took the stand in Baltimore Circuit Court in early May.

He had been a lieutenant in a drug ring in the Monument Street and Milton Avenue corridor. Had he not worked with police and prosecutors, he could have faced a 40-year sentence. Instead, he is serving eight years for a conspiracy to distribute cocaine conviction.

"I cooperated because I didn't want to go away forever and a day, amen," he testified.

But becoming a snitch came with a price. His family was ushered into a witness assistance program after the January break-in and has since permanently moved out of the city, where the 11-year-old had been an honor student.

Other times, prosecutors say, witnesses are shot or even killed.

A young Baltimore man named Adrian Tony Jenkins watched one of his associates shoot and beat a man who urinated on their turf in May 1999. Jenkins identified the shooter as Andre L. "Turtle" Chavis, who was then arrested and charged with attempted murder.

While in jail, Chavis wrote numerous letters, prosecutors say, calling Jenkins a rat and asking his associates to make sure he didn't testify at the coming trial.

Chavis wrote in one letter: "Tony Rat ass got to die because yo he can't be trusted ... "

Jenkins didn't show up at Chavis' trial, and the case was dismissed. Nineteen months later, after a party for Jenkins' 21st birthday, Chavis and another man drove Jenkins to Leakin Park and shot him point-blank in the face.

Chavis was convicted last year of that murder.

"The mind-set on the street is, when the police come, you shut your mouth," says Wes Adams, the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted Chavis on the murder charge.

But witness intimidation in Baltimore is often more insidious than a direct confrontation.

Adams says that in a recent murder case he prosecuted - which ended in a hung jury - about a dozen young men wearing what's considered the "street uniform" of bluejeans and white T-shirts filled the courtroom's two back benches.

One female witness visibly shuddered throughout her testimony, he says, and clenched her teeth so hard that her face swelled up.

Baltimore judges say similar scenes play out daily in their courtrooms.

"The atmosphere of fear is almost palpable," Glynn says, adding that he has had to stop trials to try to calm frightened witnesses.

Skinny Suge's DVD series illustrates what the drug culture has been doing all along, prosecutors say. The dealers have created a climate of fear to reduce the risk of people's testifying against them.

James Wallner, an assistant state's attorney who also handles cases in federal court, calls the DVDs "a public service announcement for criminals: Just say no to snitching."

Though the concept of witness intimidation appears throughout the judicial system, attorneys say it's far more prevalent in state courts - particularly in Baltimore - than at the federal level.

Longtime Baltimore defense attorney Warren A. Brown says federal cases are often built around police informants.

One "rat" referenced throughout Stop Snitching is Tyree Stewart, a former drug kingpin who once ran a $50 million marijuana ring in West Baltimore and now is under the U.S. marshal's custody.

He is believed to be cooperating with federal authorities as they try to lock up members of his organization, including Solothal "Itchy Man" Thomas, alleged to be one of the city's most violent enforcers.

One man in the DVD complains that "Black changed the norm. He made it cool to rat."

But Brown says that most drug dealers in Stewart's shoes "would flip in an instant."

Attorneys say that's because cooperating with authorities is one of the only ways to reduce a prison term under the tough federal mandatory minimum sentences and strict federal sentencing guidelines.

Informants also may feel more comfortable testifying in a federal setting because the U.S. government has a better conviction rate than local prosecutors and more resources to relocate threatened witnesses.

The city state's attorney's office's witness assistance program has an annual budget of about $300,000 - down from $600,000 in the early 1990s. And relocation usually just involves moving a family from one side of town to the other, prosecutors say.

City prosecutors have begun in recent years to ask the U.S. attorney's office for assistance in cases where witnesses have been threatened.

Last month, a federal grand jury indicted Deandre Whitehead, who prosecutors say tried to put out a contract on a 10-year-old girl and her mother - both of whom had testified that they'd seen him kill the girl's father.

Whitehead was acquitted of the murder charge by a city jury in July. The day of the verdict, Jessamy asked Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio to consider federal charges. In the federal system, solicitation to commit witness tampering carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Under state law, threatening to kill a witness is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum five-year penalty.

Jervis S. Finney, the governor's legal counsel, said solving the problem remains "a major priority" for Ehrlich. His bill would make the crime of witness intimidation a felony with a possible 20-year prison term and make it possible for an intimidated witness' statements to be used in a court case without that person having to testify.

Finney hopes the DVD will help make the case to lawmakers.

"The DVD is a very disturbing reminder," he says, "that these domestic terrorists are dictating outcomes in our criminal justice system."

Sun staff writers Ryan Davis and Stephanie Hanes contributed to this article.