NOBODY ON Sparks Street in Olney speaks about Rodney Ramseur. His family still lives in the corner house where he grew up, but it's as if he never existed.

Ramseur, who would have turned 24 last month, was gunned down on his front porch in May 2012. It's unknown who pulled the trigger, but it's clear why he was targeted: Six days earlier, he had testified in a homicide case involving a childhood friend.

Similarly, four months earlier, Reina Aguirre Alonso, a witness in another homicide case, was executed: An assassin walked into the corner store where she worked at Mutter and Westmoreland streets in North Philly and shot her four times at point-blank range. She died at Temple University Hospital.

Alonso, 33, had spoken with detectives about a fatal shooting at that corner - where she lived above the store - less than two months before her slaying. Two people, Raymond Soto and Eliana Vazquez, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, retaliation and conspiracy in the case, court records show, and have not yet been sentenced.

Ramseur and Alonso both may have been killed in retaliation for their testimony, but their brutal deaths helped spur change.

Their killings helped bring about a new method of prosecuting criminal cases in the state, law-enforcement officials say - and a year after those changes were made, no witnesses in state criminal cases have been slain in Philadelphia.

A shield for sources

Witness intimidation is common in cases of violent crime, especially in tight-knit neighborhoods where people spend their entire lives surrounded by the same faces.

But to have a cooperating witness killed? That's uncommon, according to prosecutors.

So, months after Ramseur and Alonso both were silenced after helping investigators, the District Attorney's Office joined the call to expand the services offered to those willing to help put criminals behind bars.

And the state listened.

In January 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court began allowing criminal cases to be brought before an indicting grand jury instead of taking the standard path of publicly accessible hearings.

Since that alternative was introduced, the D.A.'s office has used it in more than 1,000 cases, according to Deputy District Attorney John Delaney, who supervises the office's trial division, including the homicide unit.

"It's an important tool for us to help reluctant witnesses who have been intimidated, or who live where there has been intimidation pervasive in the community, to take the first step of cooperation," he said.

When a case is brought before a grand jury, the prosecution's witnesses testify without cross-examination from a defense attorney. In fact, the defendant and attorney aren't even present during the testimony.

"Witness intimidation is something that we're incredibly concerned about," Delaney said. "Is it something we have to guard against and be prudent about? Of course."

And now, because of the changes allowed by the high court, he said, "it's an exceedingly rare event for a witness to be harmed for cooperating with police or the prosecution."

A 'sitting duck'

If Nicole Hyman had known that her oldest son, Rodney Ramseur, was going to testify in a homicide case, she never would've allowed it. She would rather have seen him go to jail, she said.

"They would've just had to lock him up," she told the Daily News in a recent interview. "There's just no protection."

"They let him walk out there like a sitting duck," she said. "This is why people don't want to step up."

Court records show that Ramseur testified in May 2012 at a preliminary hearing in the case of Garland Doughty, who later pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Saveoun Ning during a 2010 block party.

Hyman found out that her son had taken the stand a few days after the fact. "Rodney said they made him, that the police forced him to talk," she said.

One night, not long after Ramseur told Hyman about the case, he was watching TV with his mom and younger brother at their home on Sparks Street when he got a phone call, Hyman said.

He walked outside, pausing only to tell his brother that he'd be right back, and joined his girlfriend, who police said was waiting on the porch.

"Then all hell broke loose," Hyman recalled.

Gunshots rang out just feet from where she sat inside.

Ramseur, shot eight times, hopped the porch's railing into the street below and collapsed, police said. A final shot was fired at his head at point-blank range.

His girlfriend, Latia Jones, 21, was shot three times in the head, back and arm as she sat next to Ramseur on the porch. She died at Albert Einstein Medical Center.

Hyman maintains that her son never wanted to cooperate, that he was coerced into testifying in plain view of Doughty's mother and close friends, against the guy he had grown up with.

Transcripts from Ramseur's day in court, obtained by the Daily News, show that he tried to recant his statement to Homicide Unit detectives, saying "This is bulls--t."

In his original statement, also reviewed by the Daily News, Ramseur told detectives that he had seen Doughty exchange gunfire with another man on Spencer Street, a few blocks from his home.

Ning, a 29-year-old bystander, was shot in the back during the incident and collapsed, police said. He died a year later from complications of those injuries, according to court documents.

When Ramseur took the stand a year after his interview with detectives, he changed his tune.

"When I wrote that statement or whatever, they was in my head," he told Doughty's attorney during cross-examination, according to the court transcript. "They kept telling me 'write this, write this.' I didn't know what to do. I told them the statement is not accurate, that [Doughty] wasn't there."

While maintaining his friend's innocence, Ramseur also said that he wasn't worried about his family's safety in terms of possible retaliation.

Those words would come back to haunt Hyman, who says her life "has changed tremendously since his death."

"People in the neighborhood who see us around don't want to say anything," she said. "No one checks in on us ever, nobody talks about Rodney - it's like he doesn't exist."

Hyman says her family hasn't been threatened since Ramseur's murder, but wishes more protection would have been offered to her son.

In September 2013, James Frazier, 21, was found guilty of third-degree murder and related offenses in the deaths of Ramseur and Jones, according to court records. His case is under appeal.

Safety in distance

The issue of witness intimidation came up again in recent weeks, after Kathryn Berry, 42, was gunned down Sept. 27 while walking near her Strawberry Mansion home late at night.

Police sources told the Daily News that Berry likely had been targeted for her cooperation in a federal narcotics case: Eleven days before she was slain, she had pleaded guilty to selling painkillers illegally through forged prescriptions.

Federal witnesses can opt into the Emergency Witness Assistance Program, which relocates them to safe areas. But a law-enforcement source told the People Paper that Berry never sought that protection.

Plenty of resources are offered to witnesses willing to cooperate with prosecutors - it's just up to those individuals to take advantage of them, the District Attorney's Office says.

"The people who cooperate with us deserve our respect and admiration, over and above our respect for cooperating as witnesses," said Delaney, head of the office's trial division.

Witnesses who encounter intimidation - anything from actual violence to verbal threats and vandalism - can approach prosecutors with the intention of joining the Witness Relocation Program, which has been in place for many years, Delaney said.

Delaney estimates that his office relocates about 100 witness "units" a year, ranging from one person to a family of 10 or 12. Most witnesses move to areas that are familiar or where they have relatives.

For reasons of confidentiality, Delaney couldn't divulge specific locations where witnesses have been moved, but he said there's no geographic limit.

"The program is not confined to the city, it's not confined to southeastern Pennsylvania, and it's not confined to the Delaware Valley," he said.

Witnesses rarely return to the "danger zone" from which they left, Delaney said.

Back on Sparks Street, on what would have been her son's 24th birthday, Hyman released 24 balloons into the late-afternoon sky.

"It's hard every day to get up," she said. "I have to push myself out of bed."

The specter of violence looms every time she steps onto her front porch, now patrolled by her beefy boxer, Boss.

She's become a vocal supporter of witness relocation as a means of preventing other mothers from going through the pain she's felt.

"My son lost his life because of this," she said. "No one should have to live with that."

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