He told daughter not to testify; he'll go on trial Devonzo Lawson Jr. instructed her in open court during the trial of Faheem Thomas-Childs' killers.

Posted: July 27, 2006

It's become a well-documented statement, passed from a father to a daughter about to testify in the high-profile Faheem Thomas-Childs murder case: "Say what I told you to say: 'I don't remember.' "

The daughter, Taniesha Wiggins, 18, did that on the witness stand, and yesterday, the courtroom spotlight zoomed in on her father: Devonzo Lawson Jr., 35, of North Philadelphia.

Lawson - who faced a preliminary hearing on charges of witness intimidation, hindering the prosecution, obstruction of justice, and solicitation of perjury - was ordered held for trial on the first three charges. Municipal Court Judge Deborah Griffin dropped the perjury charge.

Wiggins was the first prosecution witness to testify in the March murder trial of Faheem, the 10-year-old boy killed after being shot Feb. 11, 2004, during a gang shoot-out while he was walking to T.M. Peirce Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

In a heated, passionate and at times combative courtroom yesterday, Assistant District Attorney Jude Conroy and Lawson's defense lawyer, Jack McMahon, argued not over what Lawson said, but what he was trying to do.

McMahon said the District Attorney's Office was missing a link in showing that Lawson made his daughter change her story. And he suggested that Lawson might just have been telling his daughter to say she didn't remember - because, he argued, she might have told him just that.

"There's an element missing here," McMahon said. "The element to this case is we don't know if he knew Story A or if he asked her to change Story A."

Conroy said that, for his charges to stick, there was no requirement on the prosecution's part to show that Lawson knew what his daughter was originally going to testify.

"He was requesting her on the stand to lie," Conroy said.

Earlier, Conroy called his one witness: Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson, who was one of two prosecutors in the murder trial of Kennell Spady, 23, and Kareem Johnson, 22, the two men who were convicted in March of killing Faheem and then sentenced to life in prison.

Gilson said Wiggins was a "very important" and "critical" witness for the prosecution, who on her own had called the police Homicide Unit two days after Faheem was shot to provide information she had on the assailants. She did so on video and in a signed statement, he said.

At the start of the trial day, March 7, Gilson said, she was also "ready, willing, and able to testify."

While at the District Attorney's Office, where she was being prepped for what was initially going to be a jury trial, she asked to call her father, Gilson said. He let her use a phone in a private room.

At the courtroom, Gilson met her father, who said he did not want her to testify, Gilson said. When Wiggins arrived, father and daughter went into a private preparation room to talk.

Wiggins, once cooperative, then refused to testify, Gilson said.

But she was ordered to testify, and as she was about to take the witness stand, her father began gesturing with his hands to her and mouthing words, Gilson said.

And that's when he told her aloud, in an open courtroom, "Do what I tell you to do. Say what I told you to say: 'I don't remember,' " Gilson said.

Under questioning by his fellow prosecutor, Jason Bologna, Wiggins "approximately 36 times under direct testimony responds, 'I don't remember. I don't recall. You can't make me remember if I don't want to remember,' " Gilson testified.

The judge agreed with the District Attorney's Office that Lawson had intervened in his daughter's testimony. But she sided with the defense in dropping the solicitation-of-perjury charge.

"To prove the perjury," Griffin said, "[Lawson] would have to know ahead of time what the original testimony was."

Wiggins was one of six witnesses who recanted their original statements to police during the murder trial. Prosecutors call this "going south," and have said it's not uncommon for witnesses to do it.

After yesterday's hearing, Wiggins' great-aunt, Lorraine Sproul, 46, said neither she nor her sister, Jackie Dennis, had given her consent to police detectives to bring Wiggins to Police Headquarters to make a statement. Wiggins, then a minor, was living with her great-aunts in their Lawncrest home.

Lawson's father, also Devonzo Lawson, said District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham "is just using my son as an example."

In arresting Lawson in April, Abraham and Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson said they hoped a clear message would be sent that discouraging witnesses from testifying would not be tolerated.

Contact staff writer Julie Shaw at 215-854-2917 or jshaw@phillynews.com.

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