Boston street gangs master intimidation
By Fox Butterfield: January 16, 2005
The New York Times

  BOSTON — In Boston, a witness to a shooting by a member of a street gang recently found copies of his grand-jury testimony taped to all the doors in the housing project where he lives.
  In Baltimore, Rickey Prince, a 17-year-old who saw a gang murder and agreed to testify against the killer, was shot in the back of the head a few days after a prosecutor read Prince's name aloud in a packed courtroom.
  And in each city, CDs and DVDs titled "Stop Snitching" have been made identifying by name some people whom street gangs suspect of being witnesses against them and warning that people who cooperate with the police will be killed. To underscore its message, the Baltimore DVD shows what appears to be three dead bodies on its back cover above the words "snitch prevention."
  These are only a few examples of what police, prosecutors and judges say is a growing national problem of intimidation by street gangs that bears striking similarities to the way organized crime has often silenced witnesses.
  "Witness intimidation has become so pervasive that it is ruining the public's faith in the criminal-justice system to protect them," said Judge John Glynn of Baltimore City Circuit Court. "We are not much better off than the legal system in Mexico or Colombia or some other sad places."
  The intimidation has gone hand in hand with a sharp increase in the number of street gangs, not just in their traditional strongholds such as Los Angeles and Chicago but also in affluent parts of Northern Virginia, Denver and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. Every year in New York City, hundreds of witnesses in court cases report being threatened, and at least 19 have been killed since 1980, according to law-enforcement officials.
  The latest FBI Uniform Crime Report, for 2003, showed that while overall crime has been level or has fallen slightly in the past four years, juvenile-gang homicides have jumped 25 percent since 2000.
  The trend has led the bureau to make a major switch in the past six months, making combating street gangs its top criminal priority, said FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker. The change is particularly significant because since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the bureau has made counterterrorism its main job and has cut back on some of its domestic crime fighting.
  Swecker said the bureau was now planning to go after gangs the way it went after the Mafia starting in the 1970s, trying to dismantle whole gangs in a coordinated nationwide effort.
  To accomplish this, the FBI will create a national gang intelligence center, with a database on all gangs and members. The bureau is also ordering its 140 Safe Streets task forces to devote more effort to gangs.
  Swecker said the bureau would also use tough federal racketeering laws and seek long federal sentences.
  One of the obstacles to combating gangs is the "code of silence" they encourage, often by intimidating witnesses, Swecker said.  One advantage the FBI will have is that by bringing federal charges against gang members, witnesses can be placed in the federal witness-protection program and given new identities.
  Prosecutors say the need for protection is critical. Daniel Conley, district attorney for Suffolk County, Mass., which includes Boston, said his prosecutors had seen intimidation in more than 90 percent of cases in the past two years that involved guns, gangs or serious violence.
  Maryland state attorney Wesley Adams said virtually all of his cases that were not domestic homicides were hampered by witness intimidation. In 2003, Adams said, when he tried nine homicides, 23 of the 35 witnesses he managed to get to the stand either recanted or lied, and that was not counting many others who were too scared and simply disappeared.
  Jackie Davis, the mother of Rickey Prince, the teenage witness murdered in Baltimore, said in a telephone interview, "This witness intimidation makes a joke of the justice system, and it's not all on the criminals." Davis said the constitutional right granted defendants to learn the identity of witnesses against them in pretrial discovery is a built-in mechanism for gang members to make threats, often against poor people who live in the same neighborhood and have nowhere to hide.
  Although the two men who shot her son have been tried and convicted, Davis said, "I got no closure." She said she was threatened herself for testifying against the killers and has had to give up her job and move out of state.
  Only a handful of states have witness-protection programs, including Rhode Island, Ohio, Colorado and California. But prosecutors and the police say that they tend to have only small amounts of money to pay for temporarily moving witnesses to other parts of the cities before the trials and that the protection ends when the trials are over.
  The Prince case illustrates the difficulty of protecting witnesses.
  Prince had seen the killing of a gang member in suburban Baltimore County, outside the city of Baltimore, and at the urging of his mother had given a statement to the police. Davis, his mother, said her son soon began receiving threats.
  Davis said she thought her son's name was revealed through pretrial discovery and that the defendant, Jerrard Bazemore, 18, tipped his fellow gang members.
  Davis said she appealed to the Baltimore County assistant state's attorney handling the case for help in relocating her family.   "They blew me off. They said they didn't have any money," Davis said.
  Steve Bailey, the deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, disputed that. "An offer was made," Bailey said. "Rickey Prince refused."
  The day the trial was to begin, April 15, 2003, Prince received a call saying he would not need to testify, Davis said.
  She said prosecutors didn't tell him that Bazemore had agreed to plead guilty, and that in a courtroom packed with the defendant's friends, a prosecutor had read out Prince's name, saying, "Rickey Prince would testify that he saw the defendant shoot at the victim's group."
  At that, the courtroom erupted, according to later testimony.
  "But Rickey didn't know, and he continued going to school and working at a restaurant," his mother said.
  Bazemore's friends in court that day included Christopher Mann, 20. Several days later, Mann and another gang member seized Prince, drove him to a landfill and shot him, according to testimony. Mann and his accomplice, Tayvon Whetstone, 19, were convicted of murdering Prince and sentenced to life in prison.
  "The motive for the killing was based on his name being read out in open court; it was retaliation," said Lisa Goldberg, the assistant state's attorney for Baltimore City who prosecuted the two men.
  Bailey, the deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, said Maryland law required that Prince's name be read aloud.
Other prosecutors disagreed, saying the law requires only that the judge be told of the existence of a witness and what he would say.
  "I don't know why his name was read out," Goldberg said. "In Baltimore City, in a plea bargain, we would just tell the judge we have a witness who would testify, to show there is a factual basis for the plea."
  Davis said simply, "They've got to find a better way to handle witnesses."