A campaign commercial being aired by the challenger in the state's attorney's race is reviving a debate over one of the darkest chapters in the city's struggle with violence — the 2002 killing of seven people in an East Baltimore arson.
A group of politicians and community members held a news conference Wednesday afternoon at a neighborhood church, demanding that defense attorney Gregg Bernstein immediately pull the commercial.
In the ad, the former witness protection coordinator for the state's attorney's office reiterates contentions that the Dawson family perished because of mismanagement in the state's attorney's office. A group of political leaders and community members railed against the commercial, saying it exploits the killings and is insensitive to surviving family.
"The ad distastefully attempts to exploit a horrible tragedy in our community," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat. "It's offensive, it's insensitive and it's unacceptable, and it must be pulled from the air … now."
At least one relative, Alice McNack, the sister of Dawson family patriarch Carnell Dawson and a plaintiff in a $14 million lawsuit against the city and state, says she still believes prosecutors failed to offer the family a viable option for protection. She said she was not upset by the commercial; other relatives could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
"I don't have an opinion" about the commercial, said McNack, a Severn resident. "But I do believe people get away with murder in Baltimore," a claim made in the commercial.
Bernstein's campaign said it would not pull the Dawson ad, or another ad featuring the mother of slain witness Carl Lackl. Bernstein has said he will improve witness protection in the city if elected.
"These tragic stories underscore the real need for new leadership and a better witness protection program," the campaign said in a statement. "Until witnesses believe they are safe and protected, too many will refuse to testify and Baltimore's low conviction rate will persist."
Tessa Hill, of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that Wednesday's news conference was "Plan A," and threatened that if the ad was not pulled, "the NAACP can agitate, we can rally, and we will demonstrate."
In October 2002, two weeks after two Molotov cocktails were thrown through the windows, a fire was set at the Dawsons' East Preston Street rowhouse in retaliation for their efforts to fight drug dealing in their neighborhood. Carnell and Angela Dawson, along with their five children, died in the fire, becoming symbols of the city's culture of witness intimidation.
Relatives immediately said that authorities had not done enough to protect the family, claims that police and prosecutors strongly denied, saying the family met with prosecutors but declined protection because they were unwilling to leave their community.
DiTanya Madden, the former witness protection coordinator who appears in the commercial, resigned three months after the fire, saying that prosecutors were not truthful about their interactions with the Dawsons. Five relatives later filed a lawsuit against city and state officials, invoking Madden's claims, among other arguments that the city and state were liable for their deaths. The suit was dismissed by a judge and upheld by the Court of Appeals.
Prosecutors maintained Wednesday what they have said from the beginning, producing forms and notes that they say show that the Dawson family was offered protection after the firebombing attempt.
"The record shows that prosecutors spoke with the family regarding witness relocation, and the family on more than one occasion did not want to relocate because they witnessed a visible police presence and felt comfortable," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.
McNack, Carnell Dawson's sister, said she is resigned to the fact that the killings will be used as a political issue.
She said that the city's offers to the family were insufficient, and with the dismissal of the lawsuit, relatives have not received the answers they need. She said that Angela and Carnell Dawson told her that officials said that if the family was put into witness protection, it would be split up to live in shelters, and that their possessions would go into storage.
"They were a team," McNack said. "If you couldn't secure them as a family, to me, you're not providing an adequate service."
Reached by phone, Madden alleges a "cover-up" and said she initially withheld details from her public comments at the time because of legal concerns. Her allegations are also found in an affidavit filed in 2005 with the Dawson relatives' lawsuit.
The Bernstein campaign says that Madden reached out to it and that she was not paid for her appearance in the television commercial.
Madden says the family's name never crossed her desk, but Burns said that's because Madden had set up a system where only those families who agreed to receive assistance would fill out forms for Madden's unit. When the family declined assistance, no referral was made to her office, Burns said.
Madden says prosecutors and other city officials tried to convince her that she had met with the Dawsons, which she repeatedly denied, and she says that Jessamy personally called and reprimanded her for putting in writing that prosecutors had not been in contact with the family.
In the affidavit, she also claimed widespread mismanagement of the witness protection program, with funds unspent and unaccounted for. She said witnesses and victims demanded cash payouts in exchange for testimony, but failed to disclose those payments in court and spent the money on car payments and sneakers.
McFadden and others said at Wednesday's news conference that Madden's claims were "absolutely false" and that "the state's attorney's program was not involved" in the Dawsons' continuing trouble with drug dealers in their community, even though prosecutors acknowledge their involvement.
McFadden also said that the family was "very, very upset," though the director of the Dawson Family Safe Haven Center said she had not spoken to relatives directly about it. "It hit my heart, so you can imagine how it felt" for the surviving relatives said Pam Carter Goodwin, the center's director.
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, called the commercial "unconscionable."
Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the commercial shows that Bernstein "doesn't care about Baltimore City, doesn't care about our families, and he doesn't care about how the streets have been torn apart by this incident and others like it."
Hill, of the NAACP, said she also took issue with Madden's description of Jessamy as a "sweet" woman who is not tough enough for the job: "She's not to be called 'sweet' when she's working," Hill said.