The National Pulse
Keeping a ‘Snitch’ from Being Scratched
Witness intimidation is gaining even as the murder rate declines
Posted Dec 1, 2008 10:00 PM CDT
By Brendan L. Smith
On a cold January night in 2004, 14-year-old Jahkema “Princess” Hansen watched as Marquette “Corleone” Ward gunned down a rival drug dealer at a notorious housing complex in Washington, D.C.
When detectives showed up at her door four days later, Hansen told them she didn’t know anything about the killing. The 28-year-old Ward still wasn’t convinced she would keep quiet, even though he had dated her.
The following night, Hansen herself was shot in the head, execution style, at a friend’s home in front of four children. Ward’s accomplice, Franklin “Frank Nitti” Thompson, was promised $8,000 for the job. After being convicted for both murders, Ward was sentenced in January 2007 to 143 years in prison. Thompson received 63 years for Hansen’s slaying.
The killings cast a harsh spotlight on a city that had begun to shed its image—earned during the crack-fueled violence of the 1990s—as the murder capital of the United States. But Hansen’s murder also was the harbinger of a growing trend of witness intimidation—not only in D.C. but across the nation.
“Frankly, we struggle in a lot of our cases because we have a hard time getting witnesses to cooperate. It’s probably the most difficult part of our job,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Friedman, who heads the Victim Witness Assistance Unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. “Out on the street, there is an anti-snitching campaign. People learn from a very early age not to cooperate with the government.”
Police and prosecutors across the country are confronting an alarming number of incidents involving threats, assaults and murders of witnesses. In San Francisco, a liquor store owner was shot and killed in September after he identified two suspects in the robbery of his store a month earlier. In Massachusetts, according to a 2007 survey of more than 600 teens from high-crime neighborhoods by the National Center for Victims of Crime, almost two-thirds said people won’t report gang crimes because they are afraid of being beaten up or killed.
Homes have been firebombed and witnesses and family members killed in Baltimore, where an underground Stop Snitching video featuring drug dealers flashing guns and rapping about killing witnesses gained notoriety in 2004. Its popularity prompted the selling of T-shirts featuring a stop sign emblazoned with the video’s title.
In response, many state legislatures have created their own witness protection programs or enacted stiffer penalties for intimidation. In 2005, for example, the Maryland General Assembly passed two bills that raised witness intimidation to a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and created a hearsay rule exception for statements made by witnesses or victims.
After years of discussion and planning, the ABA Criminal Justice Section’s Prosecution Function Committee has requested funding for a nationwide study on the causes and impact of witness intimidation. The study, including interviews with judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, will offer recommendations for statutory and policy initiatives to combat the problem.
Lisa C. Smith, an assistant professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School, was awaiting final funding decisions from the section for her proposed 18-month study, which she hopes to start next month. Smith, an expert on domestic violence, also is co-chair of the ABA’s Re-entry and Collateral Consequences Committee.
“Even though we have [witness intimidation] statutes, there may be a lot more that needs to be done,” she says. “A mentality has started to seep into the neighborhood where ordinary, upstanding people who would come forward because a crime occurred are now being told they are snitches.”
David Simon, who served five years as co-chair of the Prosecution Function Committee, has seen witness intimidation firsthand as a deputy district attorney in San Bernardino, Calif. He says the intimidation crosses racial lines but can be magnified in Hispanic neighborhoods if witnesses, or members of their families, are undocumented immigrants. “They will have an inherent distrust toward going to the police,” he says.
Police and prosecutors face the task of getting recorded statements from witnesses as early as possible to prevent hearsay issues or other problems that may surface later if the witness refuses to testify, Simon says. “If you bring an uncooperative witness or victim into court, you better be ready for them to recant an earlier statement.”
Witness protection is another vital component, and it sometimes can consist of actions as simple as moving a witness out of the neighborhood for a few weeks or months, says Friedman of D.C.
The Victim Witness Assistance Unit in Washington has helped 400-500 witnesses a year with security concerns, including funding for new door locks, home systems, moving expenses and deposits at new apartments.
“They are nervous about cooperating with the government and what that means,” Friedman says. “Anytime you have a major case out on the street, they are scared.”
The unit has had success at protecting witnesses, but witnesses sometimes put themselves back in harm’s way by telling acquaintances where they are staying or by returning to their old haunts, Friedman says.
Even after a defendant is behind bars, a witness still may not be safe. Inmates in the D.C. Central Detention Facility are told that phone calls are monitored, except for conversations with defense attorneys. Nevertheless, inmates have been prosecuted for attempting to intimidate witnesses by calling accomplices on the outside.
And it’s not just defendants who are involved. Victims and their families sometimes have to deal with threats against witnesses, as the intimidation spills over from the streets into the courtrooms at D.C. Superior Court.
“You sometimes have five or six rough-looking guys in the audience staring down everyone who comes in,” Friedman says. “That’s a very scary thing.”
Even judges who try to draw the line can be at fault. In a unanimous decision in July, the D.C. Court of Appeals reversed convicted murderer Melvin Brown’s 25-year prison sentence and ordered a new trial after finding that D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Retchin had committed reversible error.
At Brown’s trial, Retchin had curtailed the cross-examination of a key government witness who said she was afraid of a spectator in the courtroom because the man—a relative of one of the victims—had previously threatened her and her son with a gun. Defense counsel complained that the man made a hand gesture as if holding a gun while he listened to the woman’s testimony. Retchin ruled that any threats the witness experienced outside the courtroom were “too ancillary,” especially since the witness had refused witness protection.
Protecting witnesses may help prevent intimidation, but it doesn’t address the underlying causes of the stop-snitching mentality. Trying to change ingrained cultural attitudes is much more difficult than replacing door locks or paying hotel bills.
Minority communities in many inner-city neighborhoods have been hit hard by poverty, unemployment, dysfunctional schools, gun violence and the consequences of America’s drug war that have left a disproportionate number of black men in prison. Many youths look to the street for male role models and find them in gangs, according to numerous studies.
LOCALS TO THE RESCUE
Community groups and local residents have helped law enforcement bridge the gulf of distrust. Peaceaholics, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization, employs ex-offenders in its outreach programs to mediate beefs on the street before bloodshed spreads in tit-for-tat violence. Ronald “Moe” Moten, a D.C. native and Peaceaholics co-founder, spent four years in prison for drug dealing, part of a criminal culture that claimed the lives of his brother and several friends.
The group is “totally against snitching,” but Moten says the term doesn’t apply to neighborhood residents, only to informants who often lie on the stand and accomplices who testify to keep themselves out of prison.
“The street code doesn’t apply to the majority of the community,” he says. “They aren’t being snitches. They’re being good citizens. They are bamboozled into believing they are snitching and are betraying their community.”
Peaceaholics members have been wrongly accused of being “hot”—of being snitches themselves, Moten says. The group, which receives funding from federal grants, foundations and donations, has a mostly positive relationship with the U.S. attorney’s office. “We walk a fine line,” Moten says. “It’s kind of hard to deal with people in the street and with law enforcement.”
The stop-snitching attitude can be changed, but local schools must be improved and residents convinced that law enforcement is on their side, Moten says.
“The people are the government, but they just don’t know,” he says. “If you get one person who will talk, you can intimidate him. But if you have six people, you can’t intimidate everybody. Then snitching would be gone because you have too many people who will come forward.”