BALTIMORE (AP) – Crime witnesses in this drug-plagued city are going into hiding – not only from the criminals, but from the police and the courts.

Afraid that drug dealers will kill them if they take the stand, an alarming number of witnesses in Baltimore are dropping out of sight, forcing authorities to find them, haul them into court and jail them in some cases to get them to testify.

Some witnesses lose their nerve after receiving threatening notes, phone calls, visits or dirty looks. Others get the message from seeing what has happened to other people who testified.

“It’s a sad state of affairs,” said Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy.

Witness intimidation is a problem across the country, but Jessamy said it has become a “public safety crisis” in Baltimore, where murderous drug gangs that hold entire neighborhoods in fear have carried out spectacular acts of retaliation, including killings, shootings, beatings and firebombings.

Prosecutors in Baltimore estimate that 35 percent to 50 percent of nonfatal shooting cases in the city cannot proceed because of reluctant witnesses, and about 90 percent of all homicide cases involve some manner of witness intimidation.

Criminals have been employing intimidation more often in the past three years for one simple reason, according to Jessamy: “It works.”

The problem has drug dealers and police battling on television and street corners for the public’s loyalty.

Both criminals and police have made DVDs to pass around blighted neighborhoods. The drug dealers’ two-hour video, “Stop Snitching,” warns people they could “get a hole in their head” for cooperating with police. The police DVD, which runs about two minutes, is titled “Keep Talking.”

Baltimore has a witness relocation program, but Jessamy said the city does not have the resources to guard anyone for more than 48 hours.

The state legislature recently tried to address the problem by passing a law that allows out-of-court statements to be used in court if they are in writing, if they are given under oath and if in-court testimony is not available because of threats by the defendant.

Meanwhile, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is pushing legislation in Congress for $90 million to set up a witness protection program to help state and local prosecutors across the country.

Mostly because of the drug trade, Baltimore has seen a rise in homicides over the past two years after several years of declines. The number of killings went from 253 in 2002 to 271 in 2003 and 278 last year. As of Wednesday, a little more than a quarter of the way through the year, there had been 72 homicides.

Baltimore has had some dramatic examples of witness intimidation and retaliation.

In January, a community activist’s home was firebombed after she helped police fight drug dealers. She was not hurt. A federal grand jury indicted five men.

In 2002 a Baltimore couple and their five children were killed by a drug dealer who set their home on fire after the husband and wife repeatedly called police to report drug dealing. The dealer pleaded guilty in federal court.

Prosecutor Tony Garcia was trying a murder case when he walked outside the courtroom to bring in his next witness, a 19-year-old woman who had seen the defendant take a man into an alley with a gun to his head. The witness had vanished.

“When we finally found her, the family told us she wasn’t there, and she was in the house hiding under a table,” Garcia said. A judge jailed her for about five months. The defendant pleaded guilty after the prosecutor secured a video deposition from the woman.

In July, an 11-year-old girl and her mother took the stand against a man on trial on charges of killing the girl’s father during an argument over a drug deal. Both testified to seeing DeAndre Whitehead, 20, kill the father.

Despite their testimony, Whitehead was acquitted on the murder charge. However, Whitehead was accused of conspiring with a cellmate to kill the girl and her mother to prevent them from testifying. Whitehead got nearly six years in prison last week.

Last September, the city established a detective unit to find witnesses who refuse to testify and haul them off the jail if necessary.

But the program has some kinks to work out: Last week, a witness was brought to jail in the same vehicle as the defendant, who passed a threatening note, said Antonio Gioia, a prosecutor.

Detective Byron Conaway, a member of the new unit, said about 25 reluctant witnesses have been jailed so far. They are usually held for only a few days.

“I can understand a person being scared, but, you know, this is the life we live, so we have to make it as safe as possible,” Conaway said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.