In her 20 minutes before a federal grand jury last January, Latisha Murphy identified the men she knew as drug dealers and described their role in a gunfight two months earlier that left 10-year-old Tauris Johnson dead.
As she finished, a jury member asked a personal question: Was she afraid?
"Yeah," she said, in her last comment to the group. "I think they're going to kill us one day when it's all over with."
One month later, two bullets were fired execution-style into her head as she stepped from her East Baltimore house to buy cigarettes.
Prosecutors say Ms. Murphy was murdered to keep her quiet.
Yesterday, a federal judge ruled her testimony could be used against those accused of killing Tauris Johnson. Two of them, a father and son, also are charged with Ms. Murphy's death.
Nathaniel Dawson Jr., 26, is charged with killing the 10-year-old and of conspiring with his father, Nathaniel Sr., to kill Ms. Murphy. Prosecutors say the elder Mr. Dawson, 55, was the trigger man in Ms. Murphy's execution. Seth Webb, 25, also is accused in the killings. Beverly Brown, 29, is charged with drug conspiracy. The men are from New York. Ms. Brown is from Baltimore. Their trial on the various federal charges opens tomorrow in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Paul M. Polansky, a Baltimore lawyer who is defending Nathaniel Dawson Jr., described Judge William M. Nickerson's ruling allowing the testimony as very damaging to his client.
"Unlike other kinds of testimony, it's not subject to cross-examination," he said. "No matter how false or true it might be, there's no way to challenge it."
In her brief afternoon testimony before the grand jury on Jan. 13, Ms. Murphy described her involvement with a group of drug dealers from New York, which began in September, two months before Tauris Johnson's death.
A 34-year-old mother of three, she agreed one day to let the group use her East Baltimore house to stash cocaine, guns and money in exchange for $50. But a single day turned into many days, she said.
The group operated from noon to midnight every day except Sunday, when its hours were noon to 10 p.m. On a given day, they could sell as many as 800 vials of cocaine, she testified. The vials sold for $10 apiece.
The group was equipped with powerful handguns, and Nathaniel Dawson Jr. usually carried one in each pocket, she said.
Ms. Murphy testified that even before she witnessed the shooting that killed Tauris Johnson, Nathaniel Dawson Jr. had threatened her.
When she returned from the market one day, he chided her for walking through her front door and told her not to do it again. If police raided the house and she snitched, he would kill her, she quoted him saying.
"I didn't fool with him no more after that," she said.
The gunfire that killed Tauris Johnson erupted in a dispute between drug gangs, police say. The boy, who had dreams of becoming a professional football player, was hit on Nov. 4 by a stray bullet while playing ball on the sidewalk near East Oliver and Regester streets.
About 15 minutes before Tauris was shot, Ms. Murphy said, she had watched through a window as a man walked up to the house in the 1700 block of Crystal Ave. and asked a gang member for eight vials of cocaine. The men came inside. Minutes later, the buyer emerged and apparently jumped into a car, which sped off the wrong way down a one-way street.
Nathaniel Dawson Jr. and Mr. Webb were on the street outside, she said.
"Everybody started shooting," she testified.
She watched Mr. Webb fire but couldn't see Mr. Dawson because he was behind a wall, she testified. But she heard the shots coming from where he stood.
Her next-door neighbor, who she described as a lookout for the gang, also had watched the shooting.
"She said . . . their bullet didn't hit the boy directly. It hit the wall and ricocheted and went through his head," she testified.