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Baltimore women called to testify in recent cases say their fears were largely ignored

When it finally sank in that she would have to testify in a murder trial involving several people she deeply feared, the single mother of two lost it emotionally.

“I called my parents screaming and crying," she said. "I was distraught.”

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The woman, a witness in the trial of Keon Gray, the man recently convicted in the fatal shooting of 7-year-old Taylor Hayes, said a Baltimore police detective initially told her she could remain anonymous if she shared what she saw that day. But months later the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office subpoenaed her to testify, warning, “You can come voluntarily or we’ll send" someone to take you to court, she said.

“It makes you think,” the woman said. "Are [they] really here to protect us?”

The Baltimore Sun agreed not to identify her because she fears retribution for having cooperated with authorities.

In a city overwhelmed by murder, where police and prosecutors are desperate to stem the tide of violence by solving cases and securing convictions, average residents are often asked to step up and help.

That’s what this witness did last summer after seeing news reports of Taylor Hayes’ murder, saying she was compelled to reach out because she has a son Taylor’s age.

But she said police and prosecutors weren’t as supportive as she had hoped and needed.

She cited a lack of communication from the law enforcement officers who sought her account of what happened. Financial help provided by prosecutors didn’t come close to covering her expenses for finding a new home and new job. She said she feared for her safety because of the deeply entrenched “stop snitching” culture in Baltimore.

She now lives with a relative and is contemplating the next step for her and her family.

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“I was nervous all the time. I didn’t go out by myself," she said. "It just became overwhelming.”

The problem of witness intimidation is not new. It has deep roots in Baltimore.

Authorities say that, historically, federal and state witnesses have been killed here in homicide, gun and drug cases. Such killings have occurred in the city, but also beyond its boundaries. Over the past two decades, those bent on escaping justice have slain people execution style at point blank range and firebombed homes, killing families.

Both the Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office say they take witness protection extremely seriously, and go to great lengths to put witnesses at ease and ensure their safety. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, in particular, has in the last six months waged an elaborate campaign — complete with online videos, highway billboards and a string of pointed tweets — to get more witnesses to trust her office to protect them.

Since 2015, Mosby’s office has doubled the size of the Victim and Witness Services Unit, adding 30 new victim advocates and serving 20 times more people, her office said. It has secured more than $5 million in grant funding to assist witnesses and victims, it said. The office has begun requiring that staff reach out to every homicide victim’s family to set up a meeting with prosecutors, a victim witness advocate, a bereavement counselor and the police detective working the case.

Still, while prosecutors sympathize with the plight of many witnesses, they also know that without their testimony cases will fall apart, putting dangerous people back on the street.

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“We understand and take very seriously the pressure victims experience from the trial process,” Mosby’s office said in a written response to questions.

“Baltimore has a long sordid history of witness intimidation," the statement said. “To effectively counteract what has become the cultural norm of the ‘stop snitching’ mentality, we must continue to re-prioritize our resources to ensure the protection and support of our victims and witnesses of crime.”

Her office would not say how often or under what conditions it denies witness requests for protection but said protections are afforded to anyone who has “a credible threat” or is perceived to be in “imminent danger.”

In 2018, the state’s attorney’s office says it relocated 120 victims, witnesses and their families to safer housing, compared with 96 families in 2015 and 46 families in 2013. It spent nearly $650,000 on victim and witness services that year, serving more than 11,600 people, according to Mosby’s office.

That amounts to about $56 for every person served.

Mosby’s office said many of those victims and witnesses feel supported and boldly take the stand despite their fears. Still, Mosby has said that more than one-third of the cases her office dropped in 2018 were dismissed because of uncooperative witnesses or victims.

The witness in the Taylor Hayes case, who did go on to testify, said she doesn’t blame those who balk.

She said she felt her fears were largely downplayed by prosecutors and police, and that she was misled by the police detective who promised her anonymity and the prosecutor who didn’t honor that promise.

The outcome was a victimization all its own, she said.

The witness said she has moved twice since telling police that she’d witnessed a “heated argument” between a woman standing beside a blue Honda and a man in a white Mercedes-Benz, and then saw the man grab what appeared to be a gun just as the woman drove away.

Little Taylor Hayes was in the Honda. As a passenger in the car engaged in a wild shootout with a man in the Mercedes, a bullet struck Taylor.

Months after the witness had provided the tip, she received a subpoena in the case and was told by a prosecutor that she would have to testify, she said. To do so, she would have to give her name. She asked not to be forced to testify on the record and said she feared retaliation. She even had her therapist call the prosecutor to explain her anxiety, she said, to no avail.

She said she tried to think of little Taylor, to stay strong for her.

The witness said she feared other people connected to the case, and still does. Mosby’s office, through its witness protection services division, agreed to help her relocate. Prosecutors also sent a letter to her landlord asking that she not be penalized for breaking her lease in the city.

She moved out of the city in April, thinking she’d feel safer.

She received no money, with prosecutors instead paying $3,000 directly to her leasing company, covering first month’s rent and security deposit. That left her on the hook for nearly $1,000 for renting a truck and other moving costs. In addition, the new rent was much higher than her old rent. On the bright side, she was able to find a new job close to her new home.

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Confronting a former lover

Another woman was forced to testify in a recent gun case against a former lover, despite pleading with detectives to excuse her from the witness stand.

She worried there’d be retribution.

“The only way I am safe," she said, “is if I don’t show up to court.”

But prosecutors subpoenaed her, and a detective showed up at her work to serve the notice. She asked about protective services but said officials told her she’d have to offer proof of a threat.

An officer came to her home to escort her to court last week.

At trial, the prosecutor asked her about a gun that was found in her house, and the woman testified that it belonged to the man, a felon who was banned from having firearms. Detectives had searched her home and found a gun wrapped in shorts inside a book bag stashed in her closet. It had the man’s DNA on it.

The woman had to face him during cross examination because he’d fired his lawyer and was representing himself. She bit her bottom lip as he questioned her.

He accused her of being a gang member and alleged she left her door open for anyone off the street to walk in and leave a gun.

“You have all the characteristics to blame your problems on someone else,” he told her. “You put my name on something I have nothing to do with.”

After her testimony, she walked out of the courtroom and down the hall to her two young sons waiting in the witness services room.

Her ex-lover was found not guilty Friday. She worries about running into him on the street.

Baltimore Sun reporters contributed to this article.

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