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TESTIFYING FOR THE STATE: CRIMINALS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Damien West took the stand last week and aired his dirty, bloodstained laundry.

He talked about shooting the federal witness at the center of the current case, about dealing cocaine in Baltimore, about robbing random people and about being the chauffeur and protege for James Dinkins, who's on trial accused of drug conspiracy and multiple killings.

So far, West is the Department of Justice's best witness.

The federal government is relying on some serious criminals - murderers, drug dealers and gang members - to make its case in the double death penalty trial under way in Baltimore's U.S. District Court. In exchange for leniency, at least six "cooperating witnesses," most of whom haven't yet been sentenced for their crimes, are expected to testify against Dinkins, 37, and his two co-defendants, Melvin Gilbert, 34, and Darron Goods, 24.

That's raised concerns among defense attorneys, who say the cooperators have a strong motivation to lie. They point to a recent study out of the University of Arkansas that suggests one in two people will perjure themselves if given an incentive to do so.

"Their testimony is essentially bought and paid for," said John Wesley Hall Jr., president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who emphasized that he was speaking generally.

But prosecutors say the deals are necessary evils and the best way to get information about covert and illegal organizations. They work very hard with law enforcement agencies to "flip" people for just that reason.

"Often the people who are in the best position to be witnesses in a case are the people who themselves have been involved in the criminal activity," said Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. He said his office works to develop cases against hardened criminals to give them the incentive to bargain.

Federal prosecutors often cut deals. In the first quarter of this year, 96 percent of federal cases garnered guilty pleas, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. That turns a lot of people into so-called cooperators - people like Marcus Pearson, who arranged the killing of a Baltimore witness. But he'll likely receive a 35-year sentence based on his plea agreement, which counted on his testimony against Patrick Byers Jr., who received four life terms.

If convicted, Dinkins and Gilbert, who is accused of murdering John Dowery, the federal witness West failed to kill, could be put to death, while Goods could receive a maximum life term. Put another way: There's a lot riding on the testimony of people with "reprehensibly low" credibility, according to one of Gilbert's attorneys.

"There's no DNA, no forensics, no bullet, no fiber, nothing to directly link Mr. Gilbert to these murders, not a fingerprint," lawyer Jonathan Van Hoven told the jury during opening statements. There's "nothing but the testimony of people you are not going to be able to trust or believe."

In the case of Dinkins et al., federal agencies paid $55,000 over several years to put up one witness, who, it turns out, was selling drugs on the side while under FBI protection. And the U.S. attorney's office has cut all sorts of deals in exchange for testimony, ensuring that some of the city's offenders will be released from prison far earlier in exchange for their testimony.

"The general goal is to work your way up the chain. You want to offer the best deal to the people who are lowest on the totem pole," Rosenstein said. But "sometimes somebody who's a major criminal player gets there first."

West pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted murder in state court with a recommendation that he serve 30 years, 15 of them suspended. He wasn't charged with any of the other crimes he confessed to, and he won't be - if he fully cooperates in this case. His plea agreement is held in a sort of suspension until he meets his end of the bargain.

That gives him a strong incentive to say whatever the government wants to hear, defense attorneys said. Dinkins' lawyers filed a motion to exclude cooperating witness testimony because it's "unreliable" and could cause "unfair prejudice" against their clients, and they asked for a hearing to determine their reliability.

Presiding U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz dismissed the request, saying it raised "ordinary questions of credibility." And in an interview, Rosenstein said investigators try to ensure credibility by independently verifying information or through recordings if possible.

"We never want to go into court in a position where we're relying entirely on the credibility of a witness who has credibility issues," Rosenstein said.

According to Dinkins' motion, drug dealer Frank Batts, in exchange for pleading to a lesser drug offense, will likely testify how he helped facilitate a killing Dinkins is charged with. The motion also assumed that another witness, Van Sneed, who testified last week, was going to say Dinkins has killed 20 people - ironic, considering that Sneed called people who cooperate with law enforcement "cowards" in a Stop Snitchin' cameo. Sneed, a Bloods gang member, pleaded guilty to racketeering and is expected to receive a sentence of 15 years, the motion contends.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Dwyer told the jury on the first day of trial to expect brothers Tamall Parker and Tracy Love to testify; they pleaded guilty in October to drug conspiracy and using a gun in a drug crime resulting in death.

On the stand last week, Randy McClean said he hoped to walk out of prison right about the time he was officially sentenced. He has already served nearly two years, and his deal with the U.S. attorney's office - pleading guilty to one count of the same drug conspiracy the defendants are charged with - carries a suggested sentence of 37 to 46 months, with time off for good behavior. Other charges haven't been pursued, and the time he's facing has been markedly reduced.

"That's why you pled guilty, right?" Gilbert's attorney, Arcangelo Tuminelli, asked McClean, who responded simply: "Right."

On the stand earlier this month, witness Doris Dickerson acknowledged that she has told lies before and "probably would tell one now if was a matter of somebody doing something" to her. Early in her testimony that day, she implicated someone who goes by the name of "Bones" as a drug dealer. Later, after Bones entered the courtroom, she denied having said his name.

"My life is in danger," she said repeatedly.

Dickerson, who says she's a recovering drug addict, has been in a witness protection program since December 2005, with thousands of dollars in bills footed by federal agencies, including rent, food, utilities, cell phone and bus pass charges.

"I couldn't tell you how much my bills are, I don't get them," she told the court. While in witness protection, she was arrested for dealing drugs in 2007, making up to $500 per day. She remains in the protection program.

Such witnesses are necessary, acknowledged defense attorney Hall.

"The government needs them," he said. "Sometimes the defense needs them too, but we have nothing to offer. If we were to offer what the government gave, we'd be prosecuted for bribery."

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