Busy lawyers. Balky victims. Botched logistics.

In Philadelphia, "witnesses evaporate," says Assistant District Attorney Peter Erdely. He prosecuted Craig Jackson, below, in a series of shootings. Though most of the cases unraveled, Jackson was ultimately convicted in one attack and sentenced to six to 12 years.
In Philadelphia, "witnesses evaporate," says Assistant District Attorney Peter Erdely. He prosecuted Craig Jackson, below, in a series of shootings. Though most of the cases unraveled, Jackson was ultimately convicted in one attack and sentenced to six to 12 years.

Getting a case to court can be a trial in itself

Posted: December 14, 2009

Craig Jackson was just 15 when he shot at three West Philadelphia teenagers within a matter of days, police said, wounding one.

At 16, police said, Jackson let loose another volley of bullets, firing at five people gathered on a North Philadelphia street. He hit two.

Four shooting incidents. Eight targets. Three people shot. Lots of witnesses. A slam dunk? Not exactly.

In fact, by the time Assistant District Attorney Peter Erdely was assigned the Jackson file, the entire prosecution was in deep trouble.

By then, most of the shooting cases had collapsed. The ones that were left were pretty shaky, too.

One victim "went south" even while in witness relocation. Another didn't show for court because jailers failed to get him there from prison.

In court this year, Erdely told a judge that Jackson had amassed an "exceptionally frightening" criminal record, despite his age.

As he sat beside his defense attorney, Jackson, in his Ralph Lauren polo shirt and khaki cargo pants, looked not a day older than his 19 years. His baby face was not unmarked, though. A long scar bisected his right cheek. Two tear tattoos fell from his left eye, marking losses that included the 2005 gun murder of an older brother.

Over two weeks in the spring of 2006, police said, Jackson fired at three people.

First, police said, he shot Terrance Green, 18, in the left thigh in April 2006, apparently in a fight over a girl.

Then he went after the two buddies of Green who had seen him shoot their friend, police said. Eleven days after he shot Green, Jackson fired eight times at Cedric Porter, 17.

Three days after that, police said, he took aim at a third target, Lawrence Temple, 15.

Detectives arrested him in all three shootings, and prosecutors won court approval to try him as an adult.

In December 2006, while out on bail, Jackson reached for a gun yet again, police said, shooting up the North Philadelphia corner. He allegedly fired at five young men, ages 15 to 19. The bullets hit two of them.

But only one of those five targets would talk to detectives - and he later recanted his statement. All five cases were dismissed or withdrawn.

The Temple case collapsed, too. Fearful for their son, the Temples moved far out of state. They ignored subpoenas to return to Philadelphia to testify.

"We're never coming back," his mother told one of Erdely's colleagues.

Still two chances

Six cases had now unraveled.

Erdely, 37, a Temple Law graduate who quit a top private firm six years ago to become a city prosecutor, found nothing surprising about any of it.

In Philadelphia, he said, "witnesses evaporate."

Moreover, he pointed out, Jackson was charged with shooting at people who might appear in court against him. Or, as Erdely put it, he had a certain "reputation with regards to how he handles witnesses."

But Erdely still had a chance. There were two cases left.

This past June, three years after the two-week spate of gunfire, the day of Jackson's trial finally arrived.

Since he was shot, the first victim, Terrance Green, had been arrested for drug dealing. He was now serving a two-year prison sentence.

Erdely didn't expect a problem. He had long ago submitted a writ, instructing officials to bring Green down from prison to testify.

On trial day, Green was not in court.

The "bring-down" had been botched.

Missing record

The writ Erdely drafted late last year said Green was locked up in the state prison in Camp Hill, Pa. That was true at the time.

But by the time Green was due in court, he had been moved to a halfway house - in Philadelphia.

As it turns out, he was only a few miles away on the day of Jackson's trial, according to state officials who reviewed his records at The Inquirer's request.

But there was something else.

Prison officials say they have no record of having received the prosecutor's writ in the first place.

"There's no writ in his file," said Susan McNaughton, of the state Department of Corrections. "I can't say, 'Yes, we got it.' "

But an Inquirer reporter found a photocopy of Erdely's Oct. 16, 2008, writ in Jackson's public court folder. There is no doubt Erdely turned it over to court officials for delivery. The writ bore the signature of the judge in the case.

Somewhere, somehow, it was lost.

A key decision

Inside Courtroom 802 in the Criminal Justice Center, Erdely faced a tough call. Should he fight or retreat?

With his shooting victim, Green, nowhere to be found, Erdely could request a delay.

He decided to forge ahead. For one thing, Jackson's attorney, Jack McMahon - one of the city's busiest defense lawyers - was in the house. The Jackson cases had been delayed 11 times previously because McMahon was booked elsewhere.

If Erdely sought a delay, he knew that the next time around McMahon might be in some other courtroom, setting the stage for the kind of attrition that routinely dooms prosecutions in Philadelphia.

"When you have McMahon in that room, you try the case," Erdely said.

Moreover, Erdely's other witness, Cedric Porter, was present. He could testify about two of the shootings, the initial attack on Green and the time he was the target.

Porter was not exactly thrilled to be there.

After he agreed to cooperate, Porter and his family enrolled in the witness-relocation program run by the District Attorney's Office.

Trouble was, they were unhappy in it, unhappy to be marooned in a hotel rather than put into permanent housing.

On the day of the trial, Erdely said, police had to drive to get Porter and "drag him in."

According to detectives, Porter had picked Jackson out of a photo array as the shooter in both incidents. But on the stand, Porter said he could not identify Jackson.

In an interview, Porter's mother, Julleen Dunbar, said her son had been a reluctant witness. For one thing, she said, Jackson's friends were in the courtroom.

"I was petrified," she said. "They was sitting so close. I was looking out the corner of my eye."

After the trial and months of relocation, she and her family were left cynical.

"The main thing around here is to mind your business," Dunbar said. "The less you know, the better off you are. That's how it is around here."

In the judge's hands

In the end, Common Pleas Court Judge Steven R. Geroff split the difference.

Hearing the case without a jury, Geroff acquitted Jackson of wounding the absent Green. But the judge found him guilty of shooting at Porter, evidently crediting Porter's initial statement to detectives - and discounting his disavowals on the stand.

At his sentencing in September, Jackson testified briefly.

"I took some time to think about my actions. I apologize," he said, his voice a mumble. "I've got family at home. Please take it into consideration."

His mother, Stacey Jackson, took the stand. She wore a T-shirt showing three people shot to death, including Craig's brother. "3 soldiers gone," the shirt read.

"My son, Craig, is a very good guy, but he has a lot of issues," she told the judge. "He has a lot of anger. . . . I just believe Craig needs a lot of help."

In his remarks, Erdely read the names of all eight people he said Jackson had shot at.

"They're going to learn about this," he said. A tough sentence would send these young men "a message that the system is serious and that the system can protect victims."

Geroff was tough.

He sent Jackson away for six to 12 years.

Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Emilie Lounsberry contributed to this article.

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