The slaying of a key witness in the Tauris Johnson murder case has sparked fear and outrage in an East Baltimore neighborhood where many residents already are mistrustful of the criminal justice system.
The witness, Latisha Regina Murphy, 34, was shot twice in the face at close range about 5:30 p.m. Saturday after leaving her Crystal Avenue home.
Police say Ms. Murphy was a witness to Tauris' slaying on Nov. 4 and was expected to testify against Nathaniel Dawson, 24, of New York City, who is charged in the case. The 10-year-old boy was hit by a stray bullet during a gunfight between drug dealers.
"No one wants to be found in the gutter with bullet holes like her," Kenneth Burgeon said yesterday as he walked in the 1700 block of Crystal Ave. near the spot where Ms. Murphy was slain.
"No one wants to get involved and take the risk of coming forward to help police like that woman did and then have to fend for yourself. You can bet that anyone who sees anything from now on is going to keep it to themself. Police ain't saying it, but this woman got killed because of what she saw. No question about that."
Police do not know of a motive and have no suspects in Ms. Murphy's slaying and are investigating the possibility that she was killed to prevent her from testifying. Police and elected officials, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, urged neighborhood residents to come forward during the 4 1/2 -week search for a suspect in Tauris' slaying.
Yesterday, Mr. Schmoke said Ms. Murphy apparently did not take advantage of a witness protection program he created several months ago.
"In this particular case, the witness did not in any way indicate that she felt herself in fear, any concern; she didn't want to be in a witness program," the mayor said.
"My sense is that she may not have of understood the people that she was dealing with. In order to have the program work successfully, we have to [have] the voluntary participation of the witness, and, in this case, to the the best of my knowledge, she did not ask for this protection."
The mayor said participation in the program is not mandatory.
Yesterday, some Broadway East residents denounced authorities for not protecting Ms. Murphy. The neighborhood reeled when Tauris was shot outside his home in the 1700 block of E. Oliver St., but many residents refused to cooperate with police because they feared retaliation from drug dealers.
Ms. Murphy's death has underscored the widely held belief among neighborhood residents that the authorities won't or can't protect them.
"People wonder why no one wants to talk to police or get involved, and then something like this happens that just explains everything clearly," said Ruth Redding, 27, of the 1700 block of Crystal Ave.
Samuel Briscoe, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years, said that residents have been "petrified" since Saturday's shooting and that they blame the city for Ms. Murphy's death. He echoed the sentiments of other residents who said Ms. Murphy should have been given protection whether she wanted it or not.
"This is the way the city treats someone who wants to get involved and turns in a bad guy?" asked Mr. Briscoe 43. "I don't think it's right for her to witness something and then have to come back to the same area with no protection.
"You don't solicit help and then leave them out to dry. I'm as civic-minded as anybody, but if I saw something there is no way I'd tell anyone."
Residents said that shootings are commonplace in the neighborhood but that the drug dealers are not as visible since Tauris' slaying.
Police said Dawson ran a large drug operation in East Baltimore and has been in jail at an undisclosed location since his arrest. His drug organization still flourishes, however, police sources said.
Police said Ms. Murphy helped run a "stash house" for Dawson and also worked for him as a street lookout. She cooperated with the investigation after her home was raided shortly after Tauris was killed.
Gurnie Edwards, 55, whose front door window was shattered by a stray bullet when Tauris was killed, expressed little confidence in the city's effort to protect witnesses.
"How can they relax their time on a witness? She should not have been able to move around. What in the world is a state witness doing without a bodyguard?" Mr. Edwards asked.
As for the remnants of the drug ring allegedly headed by Dawson, a paroled drug dealer, Mr. Edwards said, "Any of them could have pulled the trigger on her [Ms. Murphy]. Any of them."