Reticence on stand speaks volumes More than one case last week featured witness intimidation. Officials say a choice of safety over testimony is typical.

Posted: March 19, 2006

Shock, dismay and disbelief were the typical reactions last week after six witnesses recanted their testimony in the trial for the murder of Faheem Thomas-Childs, the 10-year-old North Philadelphia boy killed in February 2004 outside his elementary school by cross fire from feuding drug gangs.

Typical, that is, for those not familiar with the criminal justice system in Philadelphia.

For those who work in the trenches, the fact that the witnesses "went south" was business as usual, with Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson calling it "fairly typical and commonplace."

"This case is not the exception. It's the rule," said Gilson, who prosecuted the case.

The recantations underscore what state Superior Court Judge Seamus McCaffery, a former homicide detective, described as an epidemic in major homicide cases - an epidemic based in fear of retribution.

"I've never seen anything like this," said McCaffery, who has built a career on a no-nonsense approach to law and order.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office does not keep statistics on witness intimidation, spokeswoman Cathie Abookire said. As a result, it is virtually impossible to determine the impact such intimidation may have had when witnesses failed to appear or changed their stories.

But anecdotal evidence, particularly in cases involving drug gangs and homicides (both factors in the Faheem case), seems to illustrate a thin line between becoming a witness and becoming a victim.

Consider just three other cases in Philadelphia courts last week.

On Thursday, less than an hour after Common Pleas Court Judge Jane Cutler Greenspan found reputed drug gang members Kareem Johnson and Kennell Spady guilty of first-degree murder in Faheem's death, there was a scheduling hearing in another Common Pleas Court room for the retrial of Felix Summers.

A reputed South Philadelphia drug dealer, Summers has been tried twice in the last year in the 1999 killing of Charlotte Presley. Both trials ended with hung juries.

Presley was killed, police say, because she was a witness against Summers in another murder case. Before that trial, police allege, Summers walked up to Presley's door and shot her - the ultimate form of witness intimidation.

Presley was one of two women - the other was Diana Meirino - who authorities believe were killed because they offered information about Summers.

Summers, once on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, has yet to be convicted of a major crime.

Also Thursday, just hours after the verdict in the Faheem case, a federal prosecutor filed a 56-page sentencing memo outlining the criminal curriculum vitae of convicted drug kingpin Kaboni Savage.

The memo includes references to dozens of secretly recorded conversations in which Savage threatened to kill witnesses and their families.

Savage beat a murder case in Common Pleas Court two years ago when the key witness, boxer Tybius Flowers, was gunned down just days before the trial was to start.

Savage also is suspected of ordering the arson that killed relatives of Eugene Coleman, a witness against him in his federal drug case. Coleman's mother, her niece, and four children ages 15 months to 15 years died.

Prison tapes secretly recorded by the FBI detail Savage's ranting about killing Coleman's family and joking after learning that Coleman, a federal prisoner, had been permitted to attend his mother's funeral.

"They should've took him and got him some barbecue sauce," Savage said.

In yet another Philadelphia courtroom last week, Brian Rogers quietly explained to a federal jury why he killed a woman named Tracey Saunders.

Rogers, who began testifying Wednesday, is an admitted member of the Boyle Street Boys, a Chester gang whose leaders are on trial for trafficking in cocaine and violence.

After he agreed to cooperate, Rogers told investigators that he had pumped several shots into Saunders' head as she sat in a car outside her home Oct. 8, 2001.

"She's got to die," Rogers quoted Vincent Williams, a leader of the Boyle Street Boys, as saying after learning that Saunders, his cousin, was cooperating.

Although federal authorities, because of their resources, are credited with supplying better security for witnesses, the Coleman fire and the Saunders slaying are two stark examples of how "street justice" can trump even the Department of Justice.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, with money supplied in part by the state, has a protection and relocation program. Time and again, District Attorney Lynne Abraham has promised to provide the resources to protect any witness who requires it.

But neither Abraham, nor any of her assistants, nor any homicide detective working a murder case can force a witness to take advantage of that offer.

There is often more at play.

"Witnesses . . . don't exactly tell you everything at first," Assistant District Attorney William Fisher said at a hearing in a 2004 murder case in which witness intimidation was an issue.

"They don't tell you everything for a number of reasons. One of the reasons is that they're afraid for their lives."

Has the problem gotten worse? Or is there simply more media attention and public awareness because of cases such as Faheem's?

Charles "Joey" Grant, a highly regarded former chief prosecutor in the district attorney's Homicide Unit, said witness intimidation was not new. By and large, he argued, the District Attorney's Office does a good job dealing with it.

But unlike many federal cases in which cooperating witnesses are criminals, the police and district attorney often deal with witnesses who are innocent residents, he said.

"These are good people who want to stay . . . with their friends and their families," Grant said.

They are also acutely aware that they could become victims themselves, he added.

"They get a message, and they know that the message could have been a bullet as opposed to a conversation," Grant said. That's the risk witnesses take "just because we ask them to tell the truth."

The tedious process of taking a case from the streets to a courtroom is fraught with all kinds of risks, Grant and McCaffery acknowledged.

And often, McCaffery said, police must overcome a neighborhood culture of lawlessness based partly on distrust of authority and partly on fear of retaliation.

It is a street code that tells many residents it is smarter - and certainly safer - not to "snitch," even if someone gets away with murder.

"The mind-set in some communities is that it's cool to be a criminal," McCaffery said. "It's almost imbedded in the community: Don't snitch."

Indeed, street campaigns touting that slogan have surfaced in several cities, including Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston.

T-shirts emblazoned with that logo were sold. In a video distributed in Baltimore, a rap group glorified the "no cooperation" mind-set.

In one high-profile Boston case, the supposedly secret grand jury testimony of a cooperating witness in a drug case was circulated in the witness' neighborhood.

All were less than subtle forms of intimidation. So, too, was this:

In a pending murder case in Philadelphia, police found in a suspect's jail cell a picture of a witness who was to testify against him. The photo had been circled with a bull's-eye; underneath it was a caption.

"Dead man walking," it read.

Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Mitch Lipka and former staff writer Maria Panaritis contributed to this article.

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