Two Baltimore men convicted of firebombing a community activist's home will likely spend the rest of their lives behind bars after a federal judge imposed lengthy prison sentences yesterday for trying to kill a witness.
Nakie Harris, a 30-year-old convicted drug dealer who was infuriated by the activist's telephone calls to police, received 84 years in prison. Richard Royal, 21, was sentenced to 60 years for buying beer bottles that became the flaming Molotov cocktails thrown onto the rowhouse of Harwood Community Association President Eda McAbier on Jan. 15, 2004.
Authorities said the threat against people who step forward and point the finger at criminals is a constant struggle. The judge, speaking from the bench, said his harsh sentences should serve as a warning for those who would consider targeting witnesses in a city burdened by a stubbornly high crime rate.
"The conduct and nature of this crime speak for itself," U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz said. "This city must use every resource it can to prevent this kind of conduct. Those resources have to include everyone who lives in the affected area."
Violent retaliation against witnesses in Baltimore gained national attention when an arsonist torched a rowhouse in 2002, killing five children and a couple who had been in constant contact with police about drug dealing in East Baltimore. The arsonist, Darrell L. Brooks, is serving a life sentence without parole.
The battle between law enforcement and drug dealers intensified about a year ago when the homegrown DVD "Stop Snitching" appeared for sale. It was part of an effort intended to intimidate witnesses.
At a news conference yesterday, the city's top prosecutor and the state's top federal prosecutor said their joint effort in the McAbier firebombing case -- which included evidence of a separate video made by the defendants about witness intimidation -- should remind criminals of the harsh penalties available in federal court.
McAbier, according to several neighbors, was an inspiring, outgoing leader who devoted herself to her down-and-out neighborhood.
But to others, she was needlessly reckless in her public admonishments of local drug dealers, almost inviting retaliation. "I don't think it was an appropriate role for her," said Chris Davis, a defense attorney for Royal, who made a brief statement yesterday proclaiming his innocence.
Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein called McAbier "heroic." Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy dismissed criticism that insufficient policing forced McAbier to report drug dealers.
Jessamy said she needs more money to house and protect the hundreds of witnesses in Baltimore every year who cooperate with authorities. She said the $400,000 her office spent last year to accommodate witnesses would be "woefully inadequate" this year.
A new federal grant announced last month will be used to help shelter at-risk witnesses in Maryland, especially those cooperating in gang investigations, according to Rosenstein.
At trial, witnesses testified that Harris, a convicted cocaine dealer, led the group on the night of the attack. But Harris first needed approval from a gang leader.
Given the go-ahead, co-defendant Andre Wilkins drove a white Chrysler Town & Country minivan to two gas stations and a bar to buy a six-pack of beer and gasoline, prosecutors said. Wilkins and several others later emptied the bottles and refilled them with $2 worth of gasoline and affixed wicks to their tops, making five or six Molotov cocktails.
Just after 1:30 a.m., they lobbed several of them onto McAbier's roof and window ledge. But instead of igniting a fire, many bounced off her home and others caused minimal damage to its exterior.
Authorities expressed relief yesterday that the attack on McAbier was unsuccessful. She is still out of her home and under protection, officials said.
McAbier testified at trial about a pattern of intimidation against her.
In 2002, she got involved with the local community association and started a near-daily report to police about criminal activity in Harwood. The backlash came a year later, she said, with people she believed to be drug dealers urinating on her steps and spray-painting her home.
Her ordeal in court has not ended. The third defendant convicted by a jury in December was Terrence Smith, the reputed leader of a local Bloods gang who was found guilty of approving the attack against McAbier. He is scheduled for sentencing this month and could receive at least 40 years behind bars.
Wilkins, along with three others, pleaded guilty earlier in the attack on Harwood and cooperated with authorities. They have not been sentenced. The last defendant, Cedrick Bowman, 24, of Baltimore, was indicted in the attack Dec. 3 and awaits trial.
In Royal's case, a federal conviction appeared to do what a state conviction could not -- imprison him for decades.
He pleaded guilty three years ago to beating a 64-year-old man who had called police a month earlier to report illegal drug use. Royal pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and malicious destruction of property, and he was sentenced to time served and given three years' probation.
Federal prosecutor A. David Copperthite said at Royal's sentencing yesterday that the 21-year-old man was beyond rehabilitation.
"The impact on this victim can not be repaired," Copperthite said.