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Forces push protections for witnesses

Phila., state, and federal leaders are working to overcome "stop snitching" threats. The District Attorney's Office has issued directives for police.

Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes is leading a campaign to stamp out witness intimidation. Inset, Dajuan Fuller, accused of posting a threat on Facebook against a witness who testified against one of Fuller's friends. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes is leading a campaign to stamp out witness intimidation. Inset, Dajuan Fuller, accused of posting a threat on Facebook against a witness who testified against one of Fuller's friends. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)Read more

Less than two hours after the first witness testified at a homicide trial in Philadelphia in the spring, an ominous message appeared on Facebook.

The posting named the witness, called him a "rat," and said people like him should be murdered.

"Philadelphia we must get it together and kill" witnesses, the message urged.

At first, this digital twist on Philadelphia's entrenched problem of witness intimidation had the desired effect:

The next day, another witness in the case called the homicide prosecutor and left pleading messages on her voice mail. The tape captured the sound of fear.

"For the sake of my kids, please don't make me come to court," the woman said. "I'm petrified. I'm scared."

But police, prosecutors, and an upset judge fought back hard against the intimidator - a sign that officials are no longer willing to allow the problem to fester.

Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Bretschneider persuaded the frightened witness to testify. To highlight the witness' fear, she played the voice-mail messages in court.

"It's all over the neighborhood. It's on Facebook," the jury heard the woman beg, her voice quavering. "From the bottom of my heart, please, if there's any other way, please don't make me take the stand."

The jury convicted the defendant, Darrell Johnson, 20, of West Philadelphia, of shooting a man to death in a dispute over the whereabouts of a $60 handgun. He is serving a life sentence.

Before the trial was over, detectives arrested one of Johnson's friends, Dajuan Fuller, 25, as the alleged Facebook intimidator. In March, Fuller was charged with witness intimidation, harassment, retaliation, and obstructing justice.

He is awaiting trial - held behind bars on $1 million bail imposed at the urging of the trial judge in the homicide case, Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes.

"To think that he had the audacity to come into my courtroom and think he was going to do that and nobody was going to do anything about it? Uh-uh. No," the judge said in an interview. "I will not have it."

In a series published in December, The Inquirer reported that Philadelphia had one of the nation's lowest felony conviction rates, and that a key reason was that witnesses were often terrified.

But as evidenced by the harsh treatment of Fuller, a counterattack has begun to take shape:

District Attorney Seth Williams, working with top police commanders, has revamped investigative procedures and launched a crackdown on perpetrators.

Hughes, with the backing of state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, is leading a campaign to help judges stamp out witness intimidation in their courtrooms.

Lawmakers in Congress, the statehouse, and City Council are crafting legislative fixes, introducing proposals to provide more money for relocating witnesses and to make witness intimidation in state court cases a federal crime.

Williams, who took office in January, acknowledged in an interview that no one step would end all threats. He and other experts see witness intimidation as just the most menacing part of a pervasive "stop snitching" street culture that labels witnesses, not criminals, as villains.

But Williams said he believed the overall climate could change quickly if police and prosecutors did a more effective job.

"Once we identify the people who are intimidating witnesses and victims, we need to prosecute as quickly as possible and make an example of them," he said. "It sends a message to victims that we are going to be their champion."

First Assistant District Attorney Joseph McGettigan was even more blunt.

"We have to hurt some of these people who are intimidating people," he said. "Lock them up, and [arrest suspects] in the courtroom."

McGettigan and Deputy District Attorney Edward McCann met with top police this month to devise the crackdown.

Under a plan hatched with Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross Jr., prosecutors and detectives will swiftly share information about threats against witnesses, whether made directly in court or on the streets.

Detectives are to follow a newly drafted investigative protocol, a checklist, to make sure cases are strong. Among other requirements, it instructs investigators to document all pending court dates for the underlying crime that prompted the threats.

"We're going to be on top of this, and it's going to be swift and sure and certain," Ross said. "No balls will be dropped."

Prosecutors and judges say threats to witnesses have become all too routine. Even so, police have arrested only about 400 defendants each year for the crime, a tiny percentage given the more than 60,000 criminal cases filed annually in Philadelphia.

"Whatever the number is, we should be prosecuting them," Williams said. "I don't think the number that we have now in any way reflects the number of victims who are being intimidated."

He said intimidation typically unfolded below the radar, in quiet exchanges among victims, defendants, and witnesses who live near one another. Often, prosecutors do not realize threats have been made until their witnesses "go south" on the stand, disavowing their statements to detectives.

When threats work, criminals may feel unstoppable.

"It's a snowball effect," McGettigan said. "Once a guy sees an intimidation work, he knows he can commit a crime with impunity."

McCann, a veteran homicide prosecutor who heads the District Attorney's Office trial division, agreed:

"The power to commit murder in front of a neighborhood and know that no one will come forward, that's a power you can't even quantify."

High-tech threats

As in the Facebook threat, witness intimidation has grown beyond the old standbys: the silently mouthed threat, the pantomimed cocked gun, the hand-signaled slitting of a throat.

"It is much different than people realize, and much more sophisticated than people realize," Hughes said in an interview.

With a $20,000 state grant, she is working on a "bench book" for judges on the issue.

"We are amassing information on the law, best practices, practical tips," Hughes said. "It is literally a teaching tool."

According to Hughes, judges need to learn how to deploy their entire staffs - tipstaffs, law clerks, and the rest - so they can spot threatening actions and swiftly squelch them.

Along with postings on social media, Hughes said, judges and their aides need to be alert to spectators who might surreptitiously photograph witnesses with cell-phone cameras or even record testimony - all for display or playback on the street.

"The truth cannot be spoken out in fear," Hughes said. "So when you impinge on the ability of citizens to come forward and simply tell the truth, you undermine our Constitution."

Walter M. Phillips Jr., chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, helped line up the grant for the bench book. He said some judges seemed overwhelmed by the problem.

"Judges are not controlling their courtrooms as they should be," said Phillips, a former top prosecutor now in private practice. "They may not be up on the laws available to them and the powers available to them to control people who get out of order."

Phillips has also urged that Philadelphia begin using indicting grand juries in some cases to spare witnesses from public testimony.

McCaffery, who was a homicide detective before becoming a lawyer and ascending to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, said judges sometimes resisted change.

"A lot of the judges feel, 'This is my courtroom. Don't tell me how to run my courtroom,' " he said. "There are some judges who are sort of 'hear no evil, see no evil.' "

McCaffery, along with Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, has named Hughes and Phillips to a panel studying ways to improve Philadelphia's criminal-justice system.

McCaffery said courts might need to "fast-track" witness-intimidation cases and the cases that the threats were meant to influence.

"The longer it drags on, the longer there is for that witness to get cold feet, to be exposed to intimidation," he said.

"It's about time for the entire criminal-justice system to understand that these are people who live in terror when they are trying to do the right thing."

A push for more funding

To help protect witnesses, the District Attorney's Office runs a program far less ambitious than the federal witness-protection program, which has assisted more than 8,000 witnesses in the last 40 years.

The national program spent $150,000 per witness, providing a new identity, a new home, and a new job, often in another state.

The local program spent just $11,000 per person. It provides rent and cash for up to only four months - even though felony cases often take a year or more to go to trial. Every year, it relocates about 60 witnesses and their families.

Leland Kent, who oversees the program for the District Attorney's Office, said the office had not had to turn away witnesses but simply could not bankroll them forever. Instead, it pays initial security deposits on apartments in new neighborhoods or moving costs if witnesses can double up with relatives.

"It's like AAA," Kent said. "If you have that insurance, they can tow you or make sure you get a jump, but you have to pay the mechanic."

Still, Kent is no fan of the four-month limit. "It comes down to integrity and the ability to say, 'We're here for you,' not just for four months, but for the whole trial," he said Friday.

Program funding has dropped amid state budget cuts. At its peak in 2007, the state provided Philadelphia with almost $1.1 million in assistance. By last year, that aid had fallen to $695,000, a drop of more than a third. The proposed state budget for the next fiscal year would cut it again.

In April, Williams unsuccessfully sought $400,000 from Council to bring his office back to where it was.

Mayor Nutter and Council could not immediately budget the money, though Nutter's criminal-justice adviser, Everett A. Gillison, said Friday that the mayor wanted to find extra funding.

To provide help, federal, state, and local lawmakers are pushing legislative fixes.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) has backed a proposal to set aside $30 million nationwide annually to help those relocation efforts, along with a bill to make threatening witnesses in state cases a federal crime.

State Sens. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican from the suburbs, and Michael Stack, a Philadelphia Democrat, said Friday they would push for more state funding. After a legislative hearing on witness fear Friday, Stack said it was "insane" that the proposed budget would cut state relocation aid again.

And this month, Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. introduced a bill to fine people convicted of witness intimidation up to $2,000 and use the money to help relocate people who have been victimized.

Though that would raise only a limited amount, given the poverty of many defendants, Williams has endorsed the idea as a start.

'Someone had my back'

At hearings before Council and the state Senate, Toni Whitt talked not about funding but about fighting back against fear. Whitt spoke of how the witness-relocation program had helped her persevere in a rape case against a North Philadelphia man.

In spring 2007, Reginald Strickland raped Whitt and the three other women at gunpoint.

Whitt's cooperation was key to prosecuting him. She was the only victim who could identify Strickland by name, though DNA later linked him to the other assaults, she said.

In an interview, Whitt, 32, said the rape had been just the start of Strickland's assaults.

At times, she said, "I was thinking, 'I can't do this.' I wanted it to be over so bad. Every time you go to court, you have to relive it again and again and then see the monster that did it to you."

While awaiting trial, Strickland got hold of a contraband cell phone behind bars, tracked down Whitt's home number, and began making phone threats to her, her father, and a friend.

"If you come to court," Whitt said Strickland had told her, "you're going to die."

Whitt added: "I was really afraid. I was afraid for my life."

Immediately, Kent, of the District Attorney's Office, moved her temporarily to a safe location and later helped her move to another apartment.

Strickland was convicted of all four rapes and is serving at least 70 years in prison.

For Whitt, the assistance from the District Attorney's Office was crucial.

"I didn't feel alone," she said. "I felt like someone had my back."