Boston street gangs master
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Prince case illustrates the difficulty of protecting
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
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
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
Davis said simply, "They've got to find a better way to handle