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Despite threats, victim testifies in Phila. court

In Courtroom 801, Maurice Ragland began to shake. The drug dealer who shot him twice in the head had just been led in for a May 6 sentencing hearing.

Taking the stand at a March trial, Maurice Ragland described a campaign of intimidation, cajoling and bribery bent on keeping him silent. (David Swanson / Staff)
Taking the stand at a March trial, Maurice Ragland described a campaign of intimidation, cajoling and bribery bent on keeping him silent. (David Swanson / Staff)Read more

In Courtroom 801, Maurice Ragland began to shake. The drug dealer who shot him twice in the head had just been led in for a May 6 sentencing hearing.

Ragland's nerves were raw. The tremors began in his shoulder, rippled to his fingers - a lingering effect of his wounds.

Ragland was left for dead nearly four years ago in a puddle of blood beneath a West Philadelphia streetlamp.

"I'm not dead," he told the police officer who found him.

Ragland recovered - aside from the spasms - and did something seldom heard of in Philadelphia: He testified.

Taking the stand against Keith Davis at a March trial, Ragland described a campaign of intimidation, cajoling, and bribery bent on keeping him silent.

Ragland spent most of his life on the "left side of the law."

His testimony offered authorities a rare peek behind the wall of silence that plagues city neighborhoods and cripples courts.

"Witness intimidation occurs in virtually every violent-crime case in this city," said Ed McCann, deputy district attorney in the trial division. "Rarely are we given a direct window into it like this."

Ragland wasn't charged with a crime. He wasn't cooperating for leniency. He was simply a victim pointing a finger.

Now, Ragland hides.

Each day, before sundown, "while it's still safe," Ragland leaves his job as a porter at a Lancaster Avenue restaurant and walks to his mother's house, watching the hands and eyes of those he passes, avoiding the corners where people yell "snitch" and "police" at him.

"Next time, they'll put more than two in your head," one of Davis' friends told him.

Once home, Ragland folds some clothes and puts soap into his backpack, kisses his mother good night, and catches a trolley for the safety of a Center City homeless shelter where nobody knows him.

At the sentencing hearing, Ragland stared at Davis, hunched and handcuffed.

Ragland squeezed his shaking left arm, trying to still it. He wanted to be in control at this moment.

"It's been a long time getting here," he said.

Changes inside and out

The scars remain.

The patch of discolored skin above his right eye. The rumple of skin the size of a cigar tip behind his right ear.

But Ragland, 45, said that, since being shot, he had changed.

In September 2006, he was red-eyed and skeleton-thin, a crack addict who stole from store shelves, a sore upon his neighborhood.

At 26, he had received probation for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. More recently, he had served about three years on burglary charges.

His mother didn't trust him with the house keys. He slept on a soiled mattress in a crack house. He would creep around back alleys, stealing unguarded drug stashes. He didn't carry a gun, he said.

His eyes are clear now, his face vibrant. He believes God curved the bullets' path.

"I am running with my blessings," he said, sitting by the window of a McDonald's near his drug-rehab program. His mother trusts him now with the house keys, which he wears around his neck. He has been off drugs since December and has a girlfriend, a 45-year-old woman who's afraid to walk with him in his neighborhood.

As a "reminder," he sometimes visits the courtroom of the judge who sentenced him to jail. He said he planned on leaving Philly to live with a relative - once his probation for a 2004 criminal-trespass conviction ends in October.

"I want to live life," he said.

People who know him say he's sincere.

"He's doing excellent," said Cynthia Shannon, director of clinical services at Self Inc., where Ragland receives drug testing. "He's sober and working on his recovery plan."

"It's night and day," said Bertie Smith, Ragland's boss. "That's how good of a worker he's been. He's a very good person right now. He's cleaned up well."

Ragland's reason for testifying is simple.

"Keith's been running with that gun for years," he said. "He was going to kill somebody. He almost killed me. Somebody had to stop him."

Keith Davis, 35, has been arrested 16 times, mostly for possessing or selling drugs. Ragland often bought drugs from him. Someone had stolen Davis' stash. Davis suspected Ragland. Ragland denies it.

It was late on Sept. 7, 2006, and Ragland was coming off a high, walking on 54th Street near Edward Heston Elementary School, which he had attended. He saw Davis crouching in a weeded lot.

"Maurice, where you going?" Davis yelled.

"To the store," Ragland said. "You want anything?"

Ragland kept walking, then turned to see Davis, his gun, an orange flash. The first bullet pierced his forehead, spinning him. The second entered below the ear, hit his spine, and lodged in his neck.

Ragland fell in the circle of a streetlight in front of Resurrection Baptist Church.

Payoff and payback

After 10 days in a hospital, Ragland was wheeled home by his mother, the sensation in his left side returning.

Davis sent associates to tell Ragland he would pay him for his silence, Ragland said.

"Just shut up, because he's going to pay you," they'd tell Ragland as he took nourishment through a straw.

Ragland would take any money Davis offered, but he had already made up his mind to testify - just kept it to himself.

"He shot me twice in the head," Ragland said. "There's no rules for what he did to me, so there was no rules for what I was going to do to him."

In March 2007, Davis paid him $1,500 to keep quiet, Ragland testified.

Ragland took the money to buy drugs and to make Davis believe he wouldn't talk.

Davis drove Ragland to his attorney's office so he could sign a false affidavit.

(Gerald Stein, who dropped Davis as a client, said he knew nothing of a payoff.)

Ragland said Davis' mother and girlfriend sometimes had visited him at work, bringing Davis' children. "Please don't take my son," Davis' mother would say.

'He seemed genuine'

Lorraine Donnelly has been a prosecutor for six years. She has gotten used to witnesses' hanging up when she calls.

The Davis case landed on her desk after the preliminary hearing last May.

She was repulsed by the crime, intrigued by Ragland's testimony about the payoff, and troubled by his rap sheet.

Ragland stopped by the Criminal Justice Center a month before the March trial to introduce himself. Despite what Donnelly had read on paper, she found herself liking him. "He seemed genuine about wanting to turn his life around," she said.

The case would rest on his testimony, she told him. The defense would dismiss him as a junkie. Even though Davis was in custody, she offered to move Ragland to a different part of the city. Ragland said his life was in God's hands, and he thanked Donnelly.

"In six years," Donnelly said, "I can count on two hands how many times people have thanked me."

Davis wore a sharp blue suit, Ragland a golf shirt he had bought at Foreman Mills. He carried his backpack.

Ragland took the stand.

Donnelly handed Ragland his rap sheet.

Ragland asked for his eyeglasses, and Judge Sandy L.V. Byrd had an officer retrieve Ragland's backpack. Ragland removed his eyeglass case, thanked the officer, put on his glasses, and read.

He felt shame for his past, he told the court.

"You're addicted to crack," began defense attorney Daniel Santucci.

Santucci picked at Ragland's testimony.

"I know you have a job to do, but your client shot me," Ragland said. "He knows he did it."

Davis' mother testified that Ragland had tried to blackmail her after the shooting. Her answers were evasive. She was the only defense witness.

"The defense wants you to act like this man's life isn't worth anything," Donnelly argued. "But he had the self-respect to stand up. He realized his life was worth something."

The foreman stared at Davis every time he said, "Guilty."

Restless night

Ragland couldn't sleep the night before the May 6 sentencing. He lay in his bunk at the shelter, staring at the tile ceiling.

Lately, he had been attending the church where he was shot. It gave him strength; now, he had doubt.

A few months before, a guy drinking at the restaurant where he worked, someone he'd known almost his whole life, said something to him. "You're the worst kind of snitch there is," the guy said.

Setting an example

At the sentencing, Officer Gary Champ, who had been at the scene of the shooting, stood watching Ragland struggle with his shaking arm.

"Did it hurt being shot?" he wished he could ask him.

Donnelly was speaking to the court. "Mr. Ragland has shown such faith in the system at a time when there's so much cynicism against it," she said.

Ragland rose to speak. His arm stopped shaking.

"He wasn't worried about my life," Ragland said of Davis. "The only thing he's sorry about is that I survived and came forth to tell this story."

Davis asked the judge for mercy, for a chance to be a father to his five children, to make his mother proud. He did not say he was sorry.

Byrd listened, then spoke of how, in four recent attempted-murder cases tried before him, not one of the victims testified. And here was Ragland being called "ugly names" for stepping forward.

"I cannot get my mind around that mentality," he said, turning to Davis. "It's a mentality that allows people like you to commit crimes."

Byrd sentenced Davis to 25 to 50 years in prison.

"This is the kind of case that reminds me why I wanted to be a prosecutor," Donnelly told Ragland afterward. "I hope more people follow your example."

Then Ragland left the courthouse, catching a bus back to the neighborhood.