A Baltimore man was sentenced to six years in federal prison yesterday for ordering the killing of an 11-year-old girl who had testified at his murder trial, ending a case that came to epitomize the city's struggle with witness intimidation.
DeAndre Whitehead, 20, appeared before U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake and sat feet from members of the family he had attempted to silence.
"He took the best thing to happen to me besides my child," said Patricia Peterson, wife of the man prosecutors had charged Whitehead with killing and mother of the young witness.
Neither Peterson nor her daughter was harmed. In court yesterday, Whitehead apologized to both, saying, "I hope God forgives me for what I said."
Federal prosecutors took over the state's witness intimidation case after the city state's attorney's office failed to convict Whitehead in the killing.
The maximum penalty in federal court for murder-for-hire is 10 years. But in a deal with the U.S. attorney's office, Whitehead will serve six years in prison for pleading guilty to one of two counts of soliciting the killing of the 11-year-old. Prosecutors dropped a similar charge related to the girl's mother.
Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy used the case to illustrate the need to toughen state law on witness protection.
"This case is certainly significant," said Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for Jessamy, who championed changing state law on the issue this year. "It pricked everyone's conscience about how real witness intimidation is."
Burns said that under the new state law effective this year, local prosecutors would have been able to charge Whitehead with conspiracy to commit witness intimidation, a count that carries a sentence of five to 20 years in prison.
But the reform legislation does not allow state prosecutors the same latitude to introduce thirdhand statements that is afforded federal prosecutors.
The Whitehead case started when Russell Peterson, 47, was killed outside his Southwest Baltimore rowhouse in August 2003. Peterson's daughter, then 10 years old, witnessed the fatal shooting, authorities said.
Whitehead was arrested Aug. 16, 2003, charged with the killing and held in the Baltimore City Detention Center. Later that month, according to court documents, Whitehead approached Byron James, another inmate in the jail, and asked him to kill two witnesses to the Peterson killing.
On Sept. 9, Maryland State Police planted a recording device in the bullpen area of the detention center. Correctional officers watched as Whitehead handed James a note with a physical description of one of the witnesses, along with the phone number, address and name of Whitehead's girlfriend.
The woman, never identified in court papers, was supposed to give an unspecified amount of money to James as payment for his services.
In January 2004, Whitehead was indicted in the state system on charges that he had conspired to kill the mother and daughter, but a judge ruled that he should face the charges after he was tried in Peterson's killing.
Prosecutors said the killing in which Whitehead had been charged was prompted by an argument over fake drugs between Peterson's wife and Whitehead. Peterson's daughter, Tashiera, said she woke as her father yelled from her bedroom window.
Tashiera said she followed her father outside where he confronted Whitehead. When her father tried to break up the fight, Tashiera told police, she saw Whitehead shoot him.
During that trial, Whitehead's defense lawyer argued that the girl and her mother had misidentified her client.
On July 14, a jury threw out all charges against Whitehead in the murder case. Because of evidence rules, jurors had not heard the tape recording in which Whitehead tried to set up the killing of the witnesses.
That day, Jessamy asked then-Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio to consider federal charges. She dropped state charges of solicitation to commit murder so federal prosecutors could take over the case.
In January, Tashiera's aunt testified before lawmakers in Annapolis, urging them to pass laws to strengthen protection for witnesses and penalties for those who try to intimidate them.
This year, concern over the issue led the General Assembly to pass a bill increasing the penalties for witness intimidation.
Interim Maryland U.S. Attorney Allen F. Loucks refused to say whether the federal prosecution was necessary because of failures in the state system.
"I couldn't say that we were correcting some flaw," Loucks said yesterday. "There is overlay between the federal and local system, and we chose to prosecute on a case-by-case basis."