Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Witnesses fear reprisals, and cases crumble

Intimidation on the streets is changing the way trials are run. "People are frightened to death," the D.A. says.

Ted Canada cleans the headstone of his son Lamar's grave at Merion Memorial Park in Bala Cynwyd. Lamar Canada was shot to death in July 2005. The next year, a witness to the slaying was himself killed, 10 days after testifying at a preliminary hearing. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
Ted Canada cleans the headstone of his son Lamar's grave at Merion Memorial Park in Bala Cynwyd. Lamar Canada was shot to death in July 2005. The next year, a witness to the slaying was himself killed, 10 days after testifying at a preliminary hearing. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Martin Thomas looked at the flier and blanched.

"Don't stand next to this man. You might get shot."

The threat was scribbled on a copy of his signed statement to police, implicating a man in a murder.

Thomas, then 20, had revealed a buried cache of weapons and named one of the gunmen who killed a man at 22d and Somerset on a summer night.

Now, there were his words to detectives, posted on the wall of a Chinese restaurant in North Philadelphia for all to see.

Panicked, Thomas fled, flagged down a police car, and told the officers he feared for his life.

Police and prosecutors, who described Thomas' flight from the restaurant, said he had every reason to be frightened. Another witness in the murder case, a 17-year-old, had been killed 10 days after testifying at a preliminary hearing. They said Thomas worried that he could be next.

Witness intimidation pervades the Philadelphia criminal courts, increasingly extracting a heavy toll in no-show witnesses, recanted testimony - and collapsed cases.

"It's endemic. People are frightened to death," said District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham. "We've had witness after witness intimidated, threatened, frightened."

And the city cannot guarantee their protection.

"That fear, that's real," said Jamie Egan, a former city prosecutor. "When people would ask me if I could guarantee their safety, I would say, 'Unfortunately, I cannot.' "

Abraham has long fought for more money to protect and relocate witnesses in criminal cases. For 15 years, she has repeatedly complained, to no avail, that the city's program was underfunded and failing to meet a crucial need.

Local funding for witness relocation is a fraction of the spending in the vaunted federal witness-protection program. Efforts to pump city money into the local program have failed year after year.

As the problem has grown worse, state funding - the main source of financial help for Philadelphia witnesses - has nose-dived.

Though court cases often drag on for a year or more, the city requires witnesses to sign a contract that limits help to just four months. While Abraham said her office made exceptions to that rule, she added: "We have finite resources. . . . We have lots of need and few bucks."

The widespread fear is warping the rules of engagement in the courtroom.

As a precaution, prosecutors are fighting to keep witnesses' names from being said aloud in court. They are trying to keep police reports and other "discovery" material out of the hands of defendants. And, in some cases, they are taking the harsh step of jailing people to make sure they show up to testify.

It all amounts to an ongoing clash of rights - pitting a defendant's right to a fair trial against a witness' right to be safe.

In the last decade, 13 witnesses or their relatives have been killed, including 16-year-old Eric Hayes, whose family had been in the city's witness-relocation program months before he was shot to death.

Hayes' family sued the city, saying it failed to protect him after he testified at a court hearing in an arson case. He told police he saw a man splash gasoline on the front door of his family's home and try to set it ablaze one fall morning. Relocated far from his old neighborhood, Hayes was shot in the head at a city bus stop five days before the trial was to begin.

Prosecutors, detectives, and even some defense lawyers say witness fear has become an unspoken factor in virtually every court case involving violent crime in Philadelphia. Reluctant or terrified witnesses routinely fail to appear in court, and when they do, they often recant their earlier testimony or statements to police.

"In homicide, it's routine. It happens all the time," said Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart, who handles murder cases in Common Pleas Court. "The days of Perry Mason, when someone stands up in court and says, 'That's him,' those days are gone.

"People just don't want to get involved."

Veteran Police Detective Chris Marano says he sees the reluctance every day.

"You can murder a guy's family now and people won't testify," he said.

Assistant District Attorney Michael Barry, a top homicide prosecutor, has plenty of experience dealing with people who change their story on the stand.

"That happens at every trial - at least one witness at every trial," he said. "I've done cases where five or six witnesses have gone south."

Hundreds of people are arrested each year for harming or threatening witnesses and victims in Philadelphia. In the most extreme case, alleged drug kingpin Kaboni Savage was accused earlier this year of ordering at least seven witness-related murders, including those of four children, to protect his multimillion-dollar drug operation.

"Without the witnesses, you don't have no case," Savage said in a prison conversation that was secretly recorded by the FBI. "No witness, no crime."

In another taped conversation, Savage said: "These rats deserve to die, right or wrong? . . . My war is with the rats. I'm a hunt every last one bitch that I can, and kill 'em."

While the Savage case drew headlines, he was just one of many charged with witness intimidation in recent years.

The cases are chilling:

An admitted burglar who had implicated an accomplice was given an unexpected gift while awaiting trial behind bars. It was a block of cheese, wrapped in the statement the man had given to prosecutors.

Scrawled on the paper was his wife's home address.

A stalking victim who pressed charges against her ex-boyfriend was approached by two of his friends, who threatened her with a gun and a knife.

"Snitches get stitches," they sneered.

A man who was duct-taped to a chair and doused with lighter fluid was taunted with lit matches until he falsely confessed to a murder - into a tape recorder held by his tormentors.

Prosecutors say Tealia Charles and John Bailey tortured the man in an unsuccessful plot to overturn a murder conviction by forcing him to recant his courtroom testimony.

A Kensington activist who pressed forward with a case against a neighbor on a drug charge was threatened, but proceeded to court anyway. "I'm going to f- kill you, bitch," the neighbor told her.

The activist asked not to be named because she feared further reprisal from publicity. "They can threaten me, but I'm gonna do what I'm going to do," she said. "I won't back down."

In each of those cases, prosecutors won convictions on witness-intimidation charges. But overall, as with crimes in general, the District Attorney's Office found it difficult to win a guilty verdict in such cases for the very reason they began in the first place: Witnesses are afraid to testify.

Prosecutors charged about 1,000 people with witness intimidation between 2006 and 2008. Of resolved cases, prosecutors won a conviction on witness-intimidation charges only 28 percent of the time.

As The Inquirer reported yesterday, Philadelphia has the nation's lowest conviction rate for violent crime. In nearly two-thirds of all such cases, the newspaper found, defendants walk free of all charges.

A changing story

No one was ever charged with threatening Martin Thomas, the man who found his statement taped to the wall of the Chinese restaurant. And his cooperation with police turned out to be short-lived.

According to court records and interviews, Thomas had told police that in July 2005, his friend Dominick Peoples, then 20, bragged of shooting Lamar Canada to settle a gambling debt. A few days after the killing, Thomas said, Peoples came to his house on Ringgold Street and buried some guns in his backyard. Peoples told him that the guns were "hot" and that he had "dumped" one of them into Canada, Thomas said in a signed statement to police.

Canada was shot more than a dozen times by two men who ambushed him at 22d and Somerset. Witnesses said Canada ran from the men and tried in vain to pull a gun from his waistband as the shooters took aim with 9mm and .40-caliber guns and fired more than a dozen times. He was shot in one eye, his mouth, chest, arms, legs, and buttocks.

Besides Thomas, two other witnesses said Peoples was one of the gunmen. The other shooter has not been identified.

When the case went to trial last year, Thomas was in court only because detectives brought him in on a judge's order. On the stand, he changed his story and testified that he knew nothing about the crime.

Barry, who prosecuted the case, showed Thomas copies of his signed statements to police and took him through them line by line.

Did he recognize his own words?

"They got my name on it, but I don't remember none of this," Thomas said.

Barry asked him about the guns found buried in his yard.

"I don't remember that," Thomas said.

"You have no recollection whatsoever?" the prosecutor asked.

"I don't remember."

And so it went.

Thomas said he did not recall telling police that Peoples shot Canada. In fact, he said, he did not know Canada. He said he did not remember flagging down the police car and telling officers of his fear. He had no memory that detectives had encouraged him to enter the city's witness-relocation program and that he had sought a brief respite there. And no, he said, he was not scared to be on the witness stand.

But his anxious demeanor belied that.

"You could see the fear in him," said Ted Canada, Lamar Canada's father. "He tried to change his testimony. He tried to say that he didn't say all those things. But it was already said, and they had it documented."

The police officers he flagged down testified, as did the detectives he told about Peoples and the shooting of Lamar Canada.

Peoples was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Thomas declined to comment for this article.

"I've put that part of my life past me," he said. "I just do not want to talk about it. I do not want to bring it up ever again."

A push for more money

District Attorney Abraham has long maintained that witness relocation is essential to the administration of justice. And for just as long, she has complained that witness relocation was getting short shrift.

Philadelphia's witness-relocation program spent $747,000 last fiscal year to help 67 witnesses and their families.

Statewide, money for witness relocation has dropped off in recent years, a casualty of budget cuts and the faltering economy. After hitting $1.3 million in 2007, funding for the program fell to $980,000 last year.

Gerald Shur, the former federal prosecutor who founded the federal witness-protection program, said Philadelphia's effort seemed badly underfunded and too short.

"I believe that the person has to be protected until at least the trial is over," said Shur, now retired in Bucks County.

Shur said that authorities, whether federal or local, needed to take the same care with witnesses as they might with DNA swabs or spent bullets.

"The witnesses have to be looked upon as necessary ingredients in a criminal trial. You take care of the necessary ingredients," Shur said. "And that evidence is the witness' life."

While the Philadelphia program spent just over $11,000 per witness last year, the federal witness-protection program spends more than four times that, not counting enrollment costs of at least $150,000 per witness, according to experts. An eyewitness speaks up

An eyewitness speaks up

Johnta Gravitt was sitting on a porch with some friends on a July evening when he saw Lamar Canada run down the street, his face full of fear.

"Two boys came around the corner and started shooting at him," Gravitt, then 17, later told police. "The two guys, they lit him up. It was a lot of shots - like over 10."

Both men ran off, and Canada lay bleeding in the street.

"When I went up to him, he wasn't moving, and he was all shot up," Gravitt said. An ambulance came quickly, but Canada was pronounced dead within minutes.

Gravitt told homicide detectives what he'd seen that night. He said he recognized one of the gunmen as Dominick Peoples, whom he knew from FitzSimons Middle School. He said he didn't know the other shooter.

At police headquarters, Gravitt gave a signed statement to police. He pointed to a photograph of Dominick Peoples, wrote the word shooter over Peoples' mug shot, and signed his name to the page.

At a court hearing eight months later, Gravitt testified about what he saw that night, and Peoples was held for trial on murder charges.

"This young man was really helpful in solving my son's case," Ted Canada said.

Canada remembers feeling grateful at the time, though now his sense of loss and guilt is acute.

Canada, 45, a SEPTA bus driver who is active in the antiviolence group Men United for a Better Philadelphia, said watching his son's killer in court provided him with a measure of peace.

"It's senseless," he said of his son's murder. "That's the part that angers me most. The pain that I felt when I lost my son was the worst thing I ever felt."

But, he would learn, that was not the end of his pain.

When witnesses stray

Money isn't the only problem confronting the city's witness-relocation program. Witnesses in Philadelphia are even harder to manage and protect than witnesses in the federal program.

Many of the witnesses who join the federal program are hardened criminals - including some Mafia turncoats eager to embrace a new life - and are all too aware of the deadly risk of returning to their old haunts.

In local witness-protection programs, by contrast, the people assisted may not be criminals at all, but merely neighbors who happened to see a crime. They are not so eager to leave their homes and neighborhoods, and when they do, they may stray back - sometimes with fatal results.

That risk was evident last year when Chante Wright, a 23-year-old witness in a murder case, was shot to death after she returned to Philadelphia from Florida against the strong advice of law enforcement officials.

In an unusual move for a witness in a state case, Wright had been placed in the federal program. U.S. marshals gave her a new identity and moved her south.

She was booted out, though, after she ignored no-contact rules and called relatives. Wright was killed within seven hours of her arrival back in Philadelphia to visit her sickly grandmother.

Abraham said last week that Wright had been lured to her death with a party invitation. Her killer also shot to death a friend who happened to be with her that night.

Prosecutors said Wright's killing was arranged by a South Philadelphia man to prevent her from testifying against him in a murder trial. Partially on the strength of Wright's initial statement to police, the man was convicted of killing a neighborhood rival. He has not been charged in connection with her death.

Witnesses who take part in the city's program must agree in writing not to return to the "danger area," the neighborhood in which they were initially threatened.

The D.A.'s Office requires people to sign a 13-page contract spelling out that requirement and others, including promises to look for work and to steer clear of crime and drugs. Among other assistance, the program offers temporary housing - often in local hotels - food vouchers and modest financial help.

The confidential memorandum of understanding also says the state Attorney General's Office, which funds the city program, cannot be held responsible for "any adverse consequences" that might befall a witness.

'Nothing . . . to help you'

Barbara Clowden signed such a contract in January 2006, when her son Eric Hayes was threatened after testifying against a man who had tried to burn down the family's home in Southwest Philadelphia. She now says that was a mistake - and she hopes to prove that point in court through the federal lawsuit she has filed against the city.

Hayes was killed in November of that year, just days before the arson trial was to begin.

"The worst thing I ever did in my life is move my kid from my home and run from them people," Clowden said. "To this day, if I had to tell someone, I would say never do this.

"If you see something, you better look the other way," she said. "That's a sad thing to say to a victim, but I'm the number-one candidate [saying], 'Don't tell nothing unless you can take care of yourself, because the city don't have nothing in place to help you.' "

In the lawsuit, Clowden contends that the city failed to protect her family and that her son's death was the result of a "state-created danger."

Her attorney, Matthew B. Weisberg, criticized the city's four-month limit on financial help.

"What's the point if a trial could be a year away?" he asked. "It's almost silly."

City lawyers countered that there was no proof that Hayes was killed because of his testimony. They say the city should not be held liable because the family was no longer in the witness-relocation program at the time of his death. After spending months in motels and city homeless shelters, the family had left the program and found a home in Northeast Philadelphia on its own.

Moreover, the city lawyers said, Hayes took a risk by returning to his job at a McDonald's in Southwest Philadelphia - even though the contract had warned him to steer clear of his old turf.

In the end, Hayes was killed in his new neighborhood. "When they took his life," his mother said, "he was nowhere near the danger zone."

No one has been charged in the slaying.

Police Capt. James Clark, head of the Homicide Division, declined to comment on the case because it is pending.

Ready for problems

They might not have learned it in law school, but Philadelphia prosecutors specialize in handling cases in which witnesses go south.

"They're among the best in the country in trying recantation cases," said Brian McMonagle, a former city prosecutor who is now a prominent defense lawyer.

"They've raised it to an art form."

They get lots of practice.

"It happens in every case," McMonagle said. "You almost find it impossible to find a case where there's not a recantation."

Witness problems are so prevalent in Philadelphia that law enforcement officials routinely anticipate them and take steps to keep cases from falling apart as a result. Police and prosecutors try to lock in witness testimony at early stages, making as full a court record as possible in the event a witness later recants or is unavailable when a case comes to trial.

Signed witness statements are regularly introduced at criminal trials, even when the witnesses deny them, and detectives then take the stand to read the statements line by line.

To try to thwart threats against witnesses, court administrators take pains to strip public court files of information identifying witnesses and victims, such as address and phone numbers.

They have begun requiring people who wish to review court records to sign in, turning over a driver's license or other identification to leave a trail showing who has looked at a particular file.

In some cases, prosecutors have even sought to restrict the practice in which defendants and their lawyers receive copies of all witness statements against them. The D.A.'s Office has at times asked judges to order defense lawyers not to give their clients copies of witness statements, simply allowing defendants to read them instead.

This is to discourage what happened with Martin Thomas.

His statement to police, released to Dominick Peoples and his attorneys along with all other evidence in the case, ended up posted not just in the Chinese restaurant, but also in stores around North Philadelphia.

And it was widely circulated among people who knew Thomas, said Clinton Robinson, a friend of both men who read the statements.

Circulating witness statements has become a common tactic, aimed at striking fear in witnesses.

"It is very pervasive," said Barry, the homicide prosecutor. "Witnesses all the time come back to us and say, 'Can you explain to me why some dude walked up to me and showed me my statement?' "

Some defense lawyers say the courts have gone too far in protecting witnesses at the expense of the rights of the accused.

When a Philadelphia judge allowed a murder witness to testify in a burka that covered her from head to toe, save for a one-inch opening at the eyes, defense attorney Michael Diamondstein vigorously objected.

"How can I cross-examine someone who's hiding behind a mask?" he asked.

Prosecutor Anthony Voci countered that witnesses have a right to feel safe.

Judge J. Nazario Jimenez agreed.

Diamondstein's client was later found not guilty.

Her attire aside, the reluctant witness was in court only because prosecutors had her picked up on a bench warrant and held in jail after she failed to show up for an earlier court hearing.

Such steps are rare, but Philadelphia prosecutors have done it about two dozen times in each of the last two years.

In some cases, these jailed witnesses have become collateral damage in the larger war.

In one ugly case a few years ago, prosecutors jailed a witness to compel his testimony in a fatal bar shooting, only to forget to release him when the case was dismissed.

Korvel Odd, 45, spent nearly two months behind bars, the first month or so waiting for the matter to go to court and the last three weeks languishing after the case was tossed out.

"It was Kafkaesque," said Daniel Silverman, who filed a federal lawsuit against the city on Odd's behalf.

In June, the city paid Odd $80,000 to settle the case.

In another murder case, a witness, Nicole Schneyder, was kept locked up for nearly two months as a reluctant witness, even though the trial had been delayed. At one point, she says in a pending federal lawsuit, she was briefly let out of prison to attend her father's funeral - in handcuffs. This, her suit says, "shamed her terribly."

A sense of foreboding

Already grieving for his son, Ted Canada now worried for the safety of the young man who had become a key prosecution witness.

After Johnta Gravitt took the stand and identified Dominick Peoples as the killer, Canada said, he assumed that police would drive the witness home to North Philadelphia. He was upset Gravitt was planning to catch a bus.

"We ended up giving him a ride home," Canada said.

In an interview, homicide detectives said witness safety was a priority. But, they said, a police escort was not always such a good idea.

"The bus is safer than two white guys in a Taurus pulling up at 22d and Somerset," said Detective Jack Cummings.

Canada's fear about Gravitt as he left court that day proved prescient.

Ten days after testifying, Gravitt was sitting on a porch with friends at 22d and Somerset, mere yards from where Lamar Canada was killed.

It was about 10 p.m. on an April day in 2006 when a bearded man in a hoodie walked up to him and asked to buy some marijuana. When Gravitt and his friends said they had no drugs, the man opened fire and shot Gravitt in the chest. He stumbled off the porch, knocking over a flowerpot, as he collapsed on the sidewalk. No one else was hurt.

Gravitt's uncle Lonny Ellison lived down the street and was at the scene within minutes.

"When I looked at him, he looked like he was going to make it," Ellison said. "We didn't know it, but one of the bullets went straight through his heart."

Gravitt would never see his daughter, who was born the day he died.

The murder silenced Johnta Gravitt. Two years later, his death - and the threat on the Chinese restaurant wall - also silenced Martin Thomas.

Police have made no arrests in the Gravitt case. Because the crime has not been solved, Clark, the captain of homicide, declined to discuss a possible motive. He would not say whether police believed Gravitt was killed in retribution for his testimony.

Gravitt's family, however, is certain that was the case.

"It was a straight-up hit," his uncle said.

Ted Canada, too, said he believed Gravitt was killed for testifying about the murder of his son. He remembered driving the young man home after court, sparing him the bus, and trying to keep him safe.

"The next thing we knew, he was gone."