April 2007 Atlantic Monthly
Across our inner cities, the code of omerta has spread from organized crime to ordinary citizens. “Stop snitching” has become a motto to live—or die—by, as John Dowery Jr. discovered.
by Jeremy Kahn
The Story of a Snitch
Jeremy Kahn rides along with Baltimore's Homicide Operations Squad in search of murder witnesses.
Jeremy Kahn, author of "The Story of a Snitch," talks about the growing problem of witness intimidation and the challenges of reporting a story about it.
Articles dating back to the 1800s trace the evolution of America's gang problem.
John Dowery Jr. was happy to be working again. He had recently spent 11 months cooped up, a prisoner in his own home. In November 2003, two officers investigating the sound of gunfire in East Baltimore had arrested him after a car and foot chase. They said that Dowery, who had been riding in the back of a blue Mitsubishi, had jumped out of the car, placed a loaded .38-caliber handgun on the ground, and tried to flee. A 36-year-old heroin addict with a felony drug conviction, Dowery was facing federal prosecution and the prospect of up to eight years without parole. While he awaited trial, he had been “put on the box”—confined to his house, his whereabouts monitored by a transmitter locked around his ankle.
Staring down almost a decade behind bars can change a man, make him long for a second chance. And now it seemed Dowery had been given one. In October 2004, he had cut a deal, agreeing to become a witness in a murder trial. In exchange for his testimony, and as a result of good behavior, the feds had eased the terms of his pretrial detention. He had entered a drug-treatment program and landed a job working the graveyard shift at a condiment factory in the suburbs. For the first time in years, he was clean and sober, and life was looking up.
Each night, Dowery rode the commuter rail from the city to the plant; each morning, he rode it home again. He didn’t mind the odd hours; having worked as a baker, he was accustomed to being nocturnal. Shortly after dawn on October 19, 2005, he got off the train as usual. It was a brisk morning, with clouds dappling the sky but no hint of rain. He decided to skip the bus and walk the mile to his house on Bartlett Avenue.
Photographs by Veronika Lukasova
He ambled past the massive Board of Education building, with its columns, and headed down North Avenue to Greenmount Cemetery. There he turned left, passing the abandoned row houses where the “corner boys” were already opening for business, hoping to find a junkie in need of a morning fix. Farther on, past still-shuttered hair salons and check-cashing outfits, he turned down East 24th toward Bartlett. Just after seven o’clock, he reached his front porch and called out for his girlfriend, Yolanda, to let him in. Then he sensed something behind him.
Left to Right: John Dowery Jr., James S. Wise Jr., Joseph Bassett
He spun around to find two men dressed in black standing in his small front yard. One held a gun. As Dowery scrambled for his neighbor’s porch, the man pulled the trigger. Dowery leaped from the porch and raced around the side of his house, the two men close behind him, the gunman firing the whole way. He managed to stagger through his back door before his legs gave out. The attackers, believing their work accomplished, took off. A neighbor would later tell police that she heard one of them say, “We busted his motherfucking ass.”
Dowery had been shot in the back and in both arms and legs—six times in all. Only the skilled hands of the surgeons at Johns Hopkins spared his life. And yet, in the eyes of many people in the blocks around Bartlett, John Dowery had gotten what was coming to him.
In many Baltimore neighborhoods, talking to the law has become a mortal sin, a dishonorable act punishable by social banishment—or worse. Prosecutors in the city can rattle off a litany of brutal retaliations: houses firebombed, witnesses and their relatives shot, contract hits on 10-year-olds. Witness intimidation, they say, badly hampers their ability to fight crime, and it affects nearly every murder case they try.
Prosecutors in most major U.S. cities tell similar stories. Two years ago in Philadelphia, a drug kingpin was convicted of witness intimidation after he was taped threatening to kill those who testified against him. Five relatives of one witness in the case had already died, in a house fire that prosecutors believe was the drug lord’s doing. Last year in San Francisco, two gang members beat a murder rap after the state’s star witness turned up dead. Several years ago in Denver, a key homicide witness was sexually assaulted in what prosecutors believe was a “contract” attack designed to frighten him out of testifying.
Police and prosecutors have been contending with reluctant witnesses for decades. But according to law-enforcement experts, the problem is getting dramatically worse, and is reflected in falling arrest and conviction rates for violent crimes. In cities with populations between half a million (for example, Tucson) and a million (Detroit), the proportion of violent crimes cleared by an arrest dropped from about 45 percent in the late 1990s to less than 35 percent in 2005, according to the FBI. Conviction rates have similarly dropped. At the same time, crime has spiked. Murder rates have risen more or less steadily since 2000. Last December, the FBI voiced concern over a jump in violent crime, which in 2005 showed its biggest increase in more than a decade.
The reasons for witnesses’ reluctance appear to be changing and becoming more complex, with the police confronting a new cultural phenomenon: the spread of the gangland code of silence, or omerta, from organized crime to the population at large. Those who cooperate with the police are labeled “snitches” or “rats”—terms once applied only to jailhouse informants or criminals who turned state’s evidence, but now used for “civilian” witnesses as well. This is particularly true in the inner cities, where gangsta culture has been romanticized through rap music and other forms of entertainment, and where the motto “Stop snitching,” expounded in hip-hop lyrics and emblazoned on caps and T-shirts, has become a creed.
The metastasis of this culture of silence in minority communities has been facilitated by a gradual breakdown of trust in the police and the government. The erosion began during the civil-rights era, when informants were a favorite law-enforcement tool against groups like the Black Panthers. But it accelerated because of the war on drugs. David Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York, told me: “This is the reward we have reaped for 20 years of profligate drug enforcement in these communities.” When half the young black men in a neighborhood are locked up, on bail, or on parole, the police become the enemy. Add to this the spread of racialized myths—that crack was created by the CIA to keep blacks in their place, for example—and you get a toxic mix. Kennedy thinks the silence of many witnesses doesn’t come from fear, but from anger.
The growing culture of silence helps to legitimize witness intimidation. At the same time, criminals have become more adept at enforcing the code, using increasingly sophisticated methods to bribe, intimidate, and harm witnesses. Defendants and their surrogates have obtained witnesses’ supposedly confidential grand-jury testimony and tacked it to their doors, along with threatening notes. They have adopted new technology like cell-phone cameras and text-messaging to spread the word about who is snitching; threats have even been text-messaged to the phones of sequestered witnesses. And every incident in which a witness is assaulted or murdered heightens the climate of fear and mistrust—the sense that the law either can’t or won’t protect ordinary people.
John Dowery's Backyard, where he was shot in October 2005.
On October 13, 2004, a year before he was shot while returning home from work, John Dowery was still electronically shackled to his house. Sometime after 3 p.m. that day, he looked out his front window and saw his friend James Wise coming up the street. Dowery and Wise, whom everyone called Jay, shared a love of basketball—and of heroin. Today Jay was with a younger man Dowery didn’t recognize. They stopped outside the chain-link fence around Dowery’s front yard. Jay called to Dowery, then came up to the door. He seemed nervous. He wanted Dowery’s advice.
Jay said the other man had a gun. They were planning to rob an old drug dealer named Reds, who operated from a vacant lot a few doors down. Dowery told him it was a bad idea. At 40, Jay was no innocent, but neither was he an experienced stickup artist. Even if the two men could pull off the robbery, stickup boys in East Baltimore don’t usually live long: On the street, robbing a dealer is a capital offense. “I told him basically not to do it,” Dowery would later say. “But he ain’t listen.”
Dowery looked on from his front door as the two men walked down the street and entered the “cut” where Reds worked. He watched a flock of dope fiends suddenly flee the alley, like ducks flushed from the reeds. Seconds later, Reds darted out too. Then Jay and his partner emerged and raced down the street.
The two had timed their escape poorly. Sauntering up the street just then was Tracy Love, an athletic 20-year-old with cornrows and a meticulously trimmed beard and mustache, whom everyone knew as “Boo-Boo.” Prosecutors later alleged that Boo-Boo oversaw the Bartlett Avenue drug operation. Jay and his accomplice brushed right past him. As Dowery watched, Boo-Boo pivoted and began to follow them down the hill.
Fifteen minutes later, Dowery heard the wail of police sirens and the thump-thump of a helicopter overhead. Boo-Boo strode back up Bartlett with his younger half-brother, Tamall Parker, who went by “Moo-Moo.” “I got that motherfucker, six times in the chest,” Dowery later recalled Boo-Boo shouting—ostensibly to his crew down the street, but loudly enough that anyone out on the block could hear. “Next time, one of y’all gonna do it. I’m tired of doing this shit.”
According to police and prosecutors, this is what happened after Jay and his partner, a man police would identify as Joseph Bassett, robbed Reds and left Bartlett Avenue: Boo-Boo went to find Moo-Moo. They got into a white Lexus with sparkling chrome hubcaps and began cruising the neighborhood, hunting for Jay and Bassett. Unaware they were being pursued, Jay and Bassett met up with a couple of prostitutes a few blocks away. Jay knew one of them, Doris Dickerson. He told her about the robbery and offered her drugs. She said she would catch up with him in a minute, and walked into an alley. Bassett also left for a few minutes. Just as Doris and Jay were about to meet back up, at the corner of Bonaparte and Robb, Boo-Boo and Moo-Moo spotted Jay. Boo-Boo let Moo-Moo out of the car, then drove around the corner and waited. Moo-Moo tugged the hood of his sweatshirt up around his face, approached Jay, and pulled out a 9-mm handgun. He opened up, firing at least 13 times. The bullets punched holes in Jay’s chest and abdomen; at least one smashed into his skull.
James Sylvester Wise Jr. was dead—the 229th murder of the year in a city that would rack up 278 by the end of December. Although 10 people called 911 to report the shooting, many refused to give their names. Six told the emergency operators that they did not want to talk to the police when they arrived. One caller, John Craddock, said he had seen a man running down the street and jumping into a white Lexus. He could not see the man’s face, but he thought he could make out part of the license plate—a blue-and-white temporary tag with the numbers 3, 4, and 9. Police dispatchers put out a description of the car, but to no avail. Officers canvassed the block but turned up no additional witnesses or information. None of the three who knew the most about the killing—Dowery, Bassett, or Dickerson—came forward.
A man gunned down on a busy street. No identifying witnesses; no suspects. In this, James Wise’s mur- der was typical. Colonel Frederick Bealefeld III, Baltimore’s chief of detectives, says the police used to be able to rely on people’s consciences and sense of civic duty to generate leads in murder investigations. But today, few witnesses are willing to offer information, even anonymously. “How hard is it for someone to get on the phone and say … ‘The guy who shot up this block—it is wrong, here’s who that person is’?” Bealefeld asks. “Yet we don’t get a ton of those kinds of calls. And if we graphed it out, if we tracked it over the years, you would see a very clear decline.”
A 26-year veteran of the force and the grandson of a cop, Bealefeld has seen these changes firsthand. His grandfather walked a beat on Greenmount Avenue, not far from Bartlett. In 30 years with the department, he fired his gun exactly once in the line of duty. “No way he could walk that beat and do that now,” Bealefeld says. “He took it for granted that the community respected him. Today’s police can’t take that for granted.” By the time Bealefeld joined the force, in 1980, things had become much more dangerous for both the police and the citizens of Baltimore. But during the ’80s, working narcotics, he could still find confidential informants with relative ease. Over time, that too started to change.
Bealefeld says he does not want to underestimate the fear people feel on the streets, or their lack of trust in the law. But he thinks witness intimidation has also become a cover for indifference. “How do I separate your intransigence to take part in a civic responsibility, and a moral responsibility, from your alleged fear?” he asks, the anger rising in his voice. “‘I am not doing it, because I am afraid’—that is easy to say. You may not be doing it because you are a jerk and don’t care about anybody but yourself and have no love for your fellow man.”
Bealefeld is right that disentangling fear from other factors is not easy. But when I spoke with people in the blocks near where James Wise was murdered, it was the fear that was most palpable. “Round here it’s not a good idea to talk to the police,” Jacob Smith, a thoughtful 13-year-old walking home from school in East Baltimore, told me. “People, they like, if they know you talk to the police, they don’t be around you. And if people talk on them and they get locked up, their friends come up on you and hurt you or something.” (The ostracism and retaliation he spoke of got wide airing as a plotline last season in HBO’s The Wire, set in Baltimore and created by David Simon, a former crime reporter, and Ed Burns, a former police officer: A teenager thought by his peers to have snitched was beaten, and eventually his house was firebombed.)
All over Baltimore, whenever I asked people about cooperating with the law, I got the same response. “Why would you talk to the police? All you are doing is putting a label on yourself,” said Barry Nelson, a 42-year-old part-time handyman who was waiting for a meal from a charity the day I met him. “They ain’t going to be back to protect you after you done told on some cats.” Randolph Jones, a retiree who was sweeping leaves from the sidewalk in front of his house in Northwest Baltimore, said he would call the police if something happened on his block. But the drug dealing and shootings on the next block over? He won’t pick up the phone. Jones said the police try, but as soon as they arrest one corner boy, another moves in. “You got to live here, and the police can’t do much,” he said. “You don’t want to end up like that family in East Baltimore, the Dawsons.”
The Dawsons come up in almost every conversation about reluctant witnesses in Baltimore. Angela Dawson had tried to shoo drug dealers away from the sidewalk outside the East Baltimore row house where she lived with her husband, Carnell, and their five children. She had frequently called the police. The dealers decided to strike back. In October 2002, the Dawsons’ house was firebombed. Angela Dawson and all her children were killed in the blaze; Carnell Dawson died in the hospital a week later. A drug dealer named Darrell Brooks was convicted of the crime and is serving life without parole. But the sentence has done little to reassure potential witnesses. More than four years later, the Dawsons still haunt the city.
The "Cut" where the drug dealer Red operated.
John Dowery knew Boo-Boo and Moo-Moo had shot someone; he prayed that it wasn’t Jay, that it was the other guy. But the next day’s newspaper confirmed his fear about his friend. Jay’s death shook Dowery. But it also made him more determined to get his life back on track. And in the tragedy of his friend’s murder, Dowery sensed opportunity. If he told the police what he knew about the killing, perhaps he could get a lighter sentence on his gun charge. On the other hand, talking was dangerous: If Boo-Boo and Moo-Moo found out, they might come after him or his family. So Dowery struggled with the decision. A day went by, then a week. Then he picked up the phone and called his public defender.
On October 27, Dowery, along with his lawyer and the prosecutor handling his gun charge, met with Michael Baier, the Baltimore homicide detective assigned to Jay’s murder. Dowery told Baier what he knew about the killing. He also said that Boo-Boo and Moo-Moo, who were still hanging around Bartlett, had ditched their distinctive white Lexus. His statement provided a crucial break in the case.
Another break came the following week, when Joseph Bassett, Jay’s accomplice, was busted selling heroin to undercover cops. With his long rap sheet, Bassett knew he was in trouble. He tried offering up an illegal .32 he kept at home, in the hope that the officers would let him go in exchange for getting the gun off the street. When that failed, he said he might know something about a murder on Bonaparte. The officers brought Bassett downtown to homicide, where he told Baier about robbing Reds. He also said he had seen two men in a white Lexus circling the block, and that he saw the car stop and a man get out and shoot Jay. Baier showed him a photo lineup. Bassett identified Tracy Love as the driver of the car and Tamall Parker as the shooter.
Parker and Love were picked up two days later. Baier had several other pieces of evidence: The two suspects’ mother had recently returned to the dealership a white Lexus with the temporary license tag 38491L. Video from a warehouse surveillance camera near the murder scene had captured what appeared to be a white Lexus circling the block in the minutes before Jay was killed. An analysis of Love’s cell phone records determined that the phone had not left East Baltimore that day, a finding that directly contradicted Love and Parker’s alibi: They said they had spent the day in their mother’s hair salon, in West Baltimore.
Baier did not have a confession or a murder weapon, however. So at trial, a lot would depend on the testimony of Dowery and Bassett—convicted felons who had come forward at least in part because they were facing charges themselves. Eventually they would be joined by a third witness, also in trouble with the law: Doris Dickerson, picked up for prostitution, told police that she was heading toward Jay when she heard shots. She saw Jay fall to the ground and Moo-Moo run away. She too identified Parker as the killer from a photo lineup.
Witnesses of this sort would once have made a prosecutor blanch. Now, they are usually all prosecutors have. One problem with such witnesses is that defense attorneys can use their records to attack their credibility. The fewer witnesses the state has and the more a defense attorney expects to be able to discredit them, the more likely she is to advise her client against a plea bargain. This means more cases go to trial, at significant expense to the state. And at trial, there is a decent chance—in Baltimore, about 50 percent in a nonfatal shooting, and 38 percent in a murder—that the defendant will walk.
Witnesses in the drug trade are also highly susceptible to being coerced into changing their stories or not showing up in court. If a witness goes missing, his prior statements generally aren’t admissible. And a witness who “backs up”—legal slang for recanting—can create doubt, including reasonable doubt, in the minds of jurors.
Not surprisingly, defense attorneys have a different take. Elizabeth Julian, Baltimore’s chief public defender, believes the problems of witness intimidation are overstated. She told me that the real issue is police tactics that encourage suspects to lie about their knowledge of other crimes, and she pointed out that it is perfectly legal for police to mislead potential witnesses into thinking they won’t have to testify in court. “If you are being asked, and you are getting a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card tonight, people take it. That’s human nature,” she says. In her view, many witnesses who back up are telling the truth on the stand. It’s their initial statements that were false—either outright fabrications or some mixture of fact and rumor. Julian jokes that the word on the street, rather than “Stop snitching,” ought to be “Stop lying.”
As it happened, Dowery decided to become a witness just as witness intimidation in the city was about to explode into a national story. The spark was an underground DVD titled Stop Fucking Snitching that began circulating in Baltimore in November 2004. In it Rodney Thomas, a rapper known locally as Skinny Suge, talks about what he thinks should happen to informants: “To all you snitches and rats … I hope you catch AIDS in your mouth, and your lips the first thing to die, yo bitch.” The DVD also includes numerous segments in which young men on the street rail against snitches.
In its subject matter, the DVD was more evolution than revolution. The slogan “Stop snitching” had been around since at least 1999, when it was popularized by the Boston rapper Tangg da Juice. The video would have remained a local curiosity except for one thing: It includes a cameo by Carmelo Anthony, a Baltimore native who became an NBA star with the Denver Nuggets. Anthony appears in only six of the film’s 108 minutes, and spends most of that time poking fun at a former coach and a rival player. As he later told The Baltimore Sun, “I was back on my block, chillin’. I was going back to show love to everybody, thinking it was just going to be on the little local DVD, that it was just one of my homeboys recording.” But his celebrity, combined with the DVD’s charged subject matter, created a sensation.
For Baltimore’s police, prosecutors, and judges, eager to raise awareness about witness intimidation, Stop Fucking Snitching was a gift. “Think how bold criminals must be to make a DVD,” Baltimore Circuit Judge John M. Glynn told the local press. “It shows that threatening snitches has become mainstream.” Patricia Jessamy, the state’s attorney for Baltimore, had hundreds of copies made and distributed them to politicians and the national media. The publicity helped her win passage of a tougher witness-intimidation law, one the Maryland legislature had voted down the year before. The police department made a show of arresting the DVD’s stars, including a man accused of carrying out contract killings, and created its own video, Keep Talking, to encourage future witnesses to come forward.
Stop Fucking Snitching was produced by Rodney Bethea, a 33-year-old barber and entrepreneur. I met him in his small West Baltimore store, One Love Underground, which pulls double duty as a barbershop and a boutique from which he sells his own line of urban fashions. Bethea told me the authorities and media had misinterpreted the DVD. It was not intended to encourage violence against witnesses, he said; he had simply set out to make a freestyle documentary, and snitching happened to emerge as a major theme. He also said that the term snitch has a very specific meaning on the streets and in the video. “They are referring to people that are engaged in illegal activities, making a profit from it, and then when it comes time for the curtains to close—you do the crime, you do the time—now no one wants to go to jail,” he told me, pulling on his goatee. “That is considered a snitch. The old lady that lives on the block that call the police because guys are selling drugs in front of her house, she’s not a snitch, because she is what would be considered a civilian.”
Bethea believes there is a double standard—and perhaps a tinge of racism—in law enforcement’s criticism of the “Stop snitching” culture. “When you think about it, I mean, who likes a snitch?” he said. “The government don’t like a snitch. Their word for it is treason. What is the penalty for treason?” He pointed out that the police have their own code of silence, and that officers who break it by reporting police misconduct are stigmatized in much the same way as those who break the code of silence on the street.
Bethea’s argument has a certain elegance. But the distinction he draws between the drug dealer who flips and the civilian who is just trying to get dealers off her stoop has ceased to mean much. Just ask the Dawsons. Or Edna McAbier, a community activist who tried to clean up drugs in her North Baltimore neighborhood. The local chapter of the Bloods considered blowing her head off with a shotgun but settled for firebombing her house, in January 2005—not long after Stop Fucking Snitching made news. McAbier escaped with her life, and her house was not badly damaged; those responsible received long prison sentences. But though the gang members didn’t succeed in killing her, they did silence her: She left Baltimore out of fear for her safety. And the city got the message: If you break the code, you are in danger—even if you are a “civilian.”
Left to Right: Tracy Love, Tamall Parker
By the time of the McAbier firebombing, John Dowery was starting to reap the rewards of his decision to testify in the state’s prosecution of Tracy Love and Tamall Parker. His own trial had been postponed indefinitely. He had been released from home confinement, his drug-treatment program was going well, and he had started working.
So far, Baier had kept Dowery’s name out of the investigative records, referring to him simply as “a Federal Suspect” and “the Source” so the state would not have to disclose him as a witness until closer to the trial date. He had also deferred taking a taped statement from Dowery, out of concern for his safety. These were sound precautions: On several occasions, prosecutors have intercepted “kites”—letters from a defendant, smuggled out of jail—detailing the prosecution’s witness list and instructing friends or relatives to “talk” to those on it. But Baier could not keep Dowery’s name a secret forever. Sooner or later, the government would have to tell defense lawyers that he was going to testify. In the meantime, suspicions about Dowery had already begun to circulate in the neighborhood. “Somebody approached me saying ‘Yeah, you snitching on us,’” he told Baier.
The case against Love and Parker languished. A trial was set for early April 2005 and then postponed until May, and then postponed again, and then again—seven times in all. In Baltimore, as in most major U.S. cities, the large number of cases and the shortage of judges, courtrooms, and lawyers make such delays common. Some cases have been postponed more than 30 times and have dragged on for more than five years. And each postponement increases the risk that witnesses who were cooperative will cease to be so—that they will move and leave no forwarding address, change their stories, genuinely forget facts, or turn up dead. “The defense attorneys play this game,” says Brian Matulonis, the lieutenant in charge of Baltimore’s Homicide Operations Squad. “If the witness is not there, they are ready to go. If the witness is there, they ask for a postponement.”
On May 20, 2005, Baier finally took a taped statement from Dowery. It was delivered to defense lawyers in June. Soon afterward, Dowery got a phone call from Love.
“That’s fucked, man. Why you gonna do me like that?” the defendant seethed.
“I said I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Dowery would tell the jurors during the trial. “I was testifying the whole time. But I just act like I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
A few weeks later, Love called Dowery again. “He like, ‘Man, other guy, he say he ain’t gonna testify. What about you?’”
Dowery again played dumb. “I say, ‘Man, he lied. I don’t know whatcha talking about. You cool.’” Love seemed satisfied. “It was, like, a friendlier conversation the second time,” Dowery would testify.
Dowery was nervous about the calls and about becoming known in the neighborhood as a snitch. But he didn’t believe he was in immediate danger. The trial kept getting pushed back. Summer gave way to fall. Then came the morning when two men met him at his front door with a gun.
One of Jessamy’s primary weapons against witness intimidation is her office’s witness-assistance program. Unlike the federal witness-protection program—the one most people know about from the movies—Baltimore’s program can’t provide marshals to guard witnesses around the clock for years. It can’t offer witnesses a new identity in some distant city. Instead, the Baltimore program—run by a staff of two, with an annual budget of $500,000—tries to get witnesses out of harm’s way by putting them in low-budget hotels that serve as temporary safe houses. The average stay is 90 days. The program also helps witnesses relocate permanently, generally within Maryland, providing a security deposit or first month’s rent, moving costs, and vouchers for food and transportation. If necessary, it helps with job placement and drug treatment.
In most cases, this is enough to keep witnesses safe. Few Baltimore drug gangs have much reach beyond a couple of blocks, let alone outside the city. Still, many witnesses refuse the help. Almost a third of the 255 witnesses whom prosecutors referred to the program last year did not even come to an initial meeting. Of the 176 who did, only 36 entered safe housing. “Many of these people have never left their neighborhood,” says Heather Courtney, a witness-assistance coordinator. “A lot of people can’t handle it. They just can’t be out of that neighborhood. That is all they know.”
Even after the shooting, Dowery did not want to leave East Baltimore. He had spent his whole life there. His entire family—aunts, uncles, cousins—lived nearby, most on or near Bartlett. This included many of his nine children. In a neighborhood of absentee fathers, Dowery doted on his kids. Two of them lived with him and Yolanda. And he tried to stay involved in the lives of the others.
Eventually the witness coordinators prevailed upon Yolanda, who in turn convinced Dowery that they should leave. After less than two weeks in a hotel, Dowery, Yolanda, and their five-year-old daughter moved to a house outside the city. Most of his relatives remained in the old neighborhood.
The Kozy Korner
The trial of Tracy Love and Tamall Parker for the murder of James Wise began on January 26, 2006, in the cramped courtroom of Baltimore Circuit Judge Sylvester Cox. During opening arguments, Christopher Nosher, the boyish assistant state’s attorney prosecuting the case, appeared confident. Although Judge Cox had barred any reference to the shooting attack on Dowery, ruling that the defendants had not been definitively linked to the incident, Dowery would be allowed to testify about the phone calls from Love. For Nosher, this was a coup: Jurors can be instructed to interpret a threat against a witness as “consciousness of guilt.” Evidence of intimidation can also help juries understand why witnesses may back up on the stand.
Nosher had another reason to be confident: He knew that all of his witnesses would show. John Craddock, the man who had caught three numbers of the Lexus’s license plate, had never wavered during the long pretrial process. Bassett, Jay’s accomplice, had been convicted of his drug charges and was serving a seven-year sentence, so he wasn’t going anywhere. And both Dowery and Doris Dickerson had remained cooperative.
In this respect, the trial was unusual. Witnesses so commonly miss court dates in Baltimore, whether from fear or irresponsibility, that Jessamy’s office has resorted to arresting them just to compel their appearance. Jessamy acknowledges that arresting witnesses is hardly ideal—it tends to make them hostile to the prosecution and more likely to back up, and it further sours police-community relations. “But if you’ve done everything you can to get them to come voluntarily, then you do what you have to do,” she says.
That afternoon, Dowery took the stand. He had always been skinny, but in the witness box he looked gaunt. His long, loose-fitting black shirt covered a colostomy bag, a result of the October 2005 shooting. Dowery spoke in a deep, soft voice as Nosher walked him through the events he witnessed on the day James Wise was murdered.
As he began his testimony, a commotion electrified the hallway outside. Several friends of Boo-Boo and Moo-Moo tried to rush into the courtroom carrying cell phones, which they held near their thighs, fingers resting on the camera buttons. Detective Baier was also in the hall, awaiting his turn to testify. He spotted the cell phones and stepped in front of the men, barring their path to the door. “Whoa, you can’t come in here,” he told them. “It’s a closed courtroom.” This was not true, but it kept the men from entering. Then, for laughs, Baier took out his own cell phone and took pictures of them.
Incidents of intimidation at the courthouse are no longer aberrations. Gang members sometimes line the courthouse steps, forming a gantlet that witnesses and jurors must walk through. Family members of defendants have come to court wearing Stop Snitching T-shirts and hats. In a Pittsburgh case last year, a key (though hostile) prosecution witness came to court in Stop Snitching gear. He was ejected because his garb was considered intimidating to other witnesses, and without his testimony, the district attorney dropped the charges. At the close of a Baltimore trial two years ago, jurors were so frightened of the defendants and of gang members in the gallery that the forewoman refused to read the guilty verdict aloud; so did another juror asked to do so by the judge. The judge eventually read the verdict herself and, as a precaution, had sheriff’s deputies accompany the jurors out of the building.
Dowery endured a withering cross-examination, but he escaped the stand largely undamaged. Nosher’s two other eyewitnesses did not. Dickerson developed sudden memory loss, claiming not to recall key details of what she had seen. Then Love’s lawyer got her to admit she was probably high on heroin when the shooting took place. As for Bassett, he backed up right away. “First, I would like to say I don’t appreciate being here against my will,” he said in a high, squeaky voice that seemed incongruous coming from a man of his bulk. He went on to say that he never saw Jay after the robbery, never saw anyone shoot Jay, never saw a white Lexus at the end of Bonaparte, and never told Baier that he had seen any of these things. When Nosher showed him the photo lineup he had signed, in which he had identified Parker as the shooter, Bassett said that Baier “basically picked the dude out for me.” What about his taped statement? He had been forced to make it, he said. “I gave them the plot of the story; they put their own characters with it.”
The jury heard from other prosecution witnesses: Craddock talked about seeing the Lexus and part of the license tag. Baier testified about the investigation, stating that he had not coerced Bassett or helped him pick photos from the lineup. A telecommunications expert testified about the location of Love’s cell phone. Video from the warehouse surveillance camera was shown to the jury. The defense put on no witnesses of its own. But after two days of deliberation, the jury announced that it could not reach a unanimous verdict. Judge Cox was forced to declare a mistrial.
At first, the prosecutors planned to retry the case. But over the summer, the federal government decided to take over. (With Dowery’s cooperation, it had already been working on a case against Love, Parker, and James Dinkins, a man police believe was involved in Dowery’s shooting.) In late August, Parker, Love, and Dinkins were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute heroin. As of this writing, the trial is scheduled to begin in late March.
Federal prosecutions are one method cities are using to combat witness intimidation. A law passed by Congress last December explicitly makes witness intimidation in a state case grounds for federal prosecution. Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, says the federal government has a big advantage over the states in breaking through the code of silence: leverage. Federal sentencing guidelines provide for long prison terms and, unlike the state system, do not allow for probation or parole. “We don’t appeal to their sense of civility and morality,” Rosenstein says. “We get a hammer over their heads. They realize that cooperating is the only way they can get out from under these hefty federal sentences.”
Some states are looking to bring their laws into line with federal practices. The Maryland law Jessamy helped pass elevates witness intimidation from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable by a minimum of five years. It also allows prosecutors to introduce a witness’s prior statements even if the witness isn’t at the trial, if they can provide “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant was responsible for the witness’s absence. Still, Jessamy isn’t satisfied. The new law excludes child-abuse and domestic-violence cases. And rarely can prosecutors obtain the kind of evidence of intimidation it requires. Even when they can, Jessamy says, trying to persuade judges to apply the law “is like pouring water on a stone.”
Cities are also pushing to increase funding for witness assistance. The federal law passed in December allows the U.S. attorney general to dispense grants to states for witness protection. But Congress appropriated only $20 million annually for these grants through 2010. By contrast, a bill that Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland introduced two years ago would have provided $90 million annually to support state witness-assistance programs; that bill died in committee. Since the start of the new congressional session, in January, several bills to strengthen the protection of witnesses in state cases have been introduced; as of this writing, they are all still in committee.
Federal prosecutions, new laws, more money—these are the blunt instruments of policy-makers. They might chip away at the edges of the problem. But to really reduce witnesses’ reluctance to participate in the judicial process will require something beyond the abilities of cops and courts: a cultural transformation in America’s inner cities. In Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C., authorities have tried to prohibit the sale of Stop Snitching clothing (they succeeded in Washington). But there is no indication that criminalizing a fashion and political statement will alter the underlying sentiment. Leonard Hamm, a long-serving Baltimore police officer who returned to head the city’s department in 2004 after an eight-year absence, sees the problem this way: “I think that the community is going to have to get sick and tired of the shootings and the killings and the memorial services. And all we can do as police is be there when they say they are ready.” But what if the community is never ready? Many inner-city neighborhoods have no community. The institutions that once held them together—the churches, the associations, the businesses—are shells of what they were, if they exist at all.
For Dowery, the mistrial was unnerving. Yet in some ways it was better than a guilty verdict. He was still planning to testify for the federal government against Love, Parker, and Dinkins. This would further postpone his gun case. In addition, as a federal witness, he began receiving some token financial assistance from the FBI.
Dowery’s family would visit him in the suburbs. Still, he missed them, and he missed his friends. So he occasionally sneaked back to the old neighborhood for a day or two, usually staying with his mother and trying to keep a low profile. In the spring, he proudly watched his two eldest sons graduate from high school. And he didn’t want to skip Thanksgiving at his aunt’s house, on Bartlett Avenue. “He was tired of hiding out,” his aunt, Joyce Garner, told me.
On Thanksgiving night, more than 20 members of Dowery’s family gathered for a feast. Dowery was in a good mood, reminiscing about old times. Garner remembers that he came to talk to her as she was cooking. She asked if he was worried about being back in the neighborhood. “He just talked about the Lord to us and gave us a big hug and said, ‘God’s got it,’” she recalled. Toward the end of dinner, Dowery excused himself. He wanted to run across the street to buy a pack of cigarettes and have a beer.
The sign over its beige stucco facade calls the Kozy Korner a “Cut-Rate & Lounge.” Two doors separate the bar from the street. The first opens onto a grungy vestibule where a cashier sells beer and liquor from behind a bulletproof window. The second is locked; customers must be buzzed through. Once inside, they are greeted by a dark, narrow room. A Baltimore Ravens poster is affixed to one wall. A rendering of the Last Supper, with a black Jesus and black disciples, decorates the other. Three video gambling machines flash and hum.
When Dowery arrived, a dozen other patrons were packed into the space. He recognized one of them: a former girlfriend called Toot. They chatted inside the doorway while he smoked and sipped a beer. Just after 10 o’clock, the door opened, and two men entered. This time Dowery’s sixth sense—the feeling that had told him to turn around on his porch that morning a year earlier—failed him. One of the men drew a gun, pointed it at Dowery’s head, and fired. Then the other did the same. This time, the doctors couldn’t save him.
And although the bar was crowded, no one has come forward to say they saw a thing. It’s just another homicide in inner-city America, with no suspects, and no witnesses.
The URL for this page is http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200704/stop-snitching.