Convicted North Philadelphia drug kingpin Kaboni Savage pleaded not guilty yesterday to murder, conspiracy, and drug-dealing charges during a brief arraignment in U.S. District Court.
His wrists and ankles shackled, and accompanied by five U.S. marshals, Savage had little to say during the brief proceeding that was literally the opening round in the former professional boxer's legal fight for his life.
Savage, 36, and three co-defendants could be sentenced to death if convicted of the most serious charges outlined in a 26-count indictment handed up in April.
Among other things, Savage is accused of ordering the firebombing of a North Philadelphia home in October 2004 in which six people, including four children, were killed.
The arson, authorities allege, was a chilling example of a pattern of witness intimidation that Savage has employed throughout a violent criminal career.
Described by a federal prosecutor as the leader of "perhaps the most violent drug gang ever seen" in Philadelphia, Savage is charged with heading a cocaine trafficking operation that used murder and threats of violence to control narcotics trafficking and to intimidate and eliminate potential witnesses.
His philosophy, authorities say, was captured on a secretly recorded prison tape in which he told an associate: "No witness. No crime."
Defense attorney Christopher Warren said after yesterday's hearing that the prosecution's case was in part a rehash of an earlier drug trial and in part built around the "corrupt, polluted, and self-serving" testimony of cooperating witness who were trying to get out from under their own criminal problems.
Warren also said he would fight an expected attempt by the Bureau of Prisons to ship Savage back to a maximum security prison in Florence, Colo., where he has been serving a 30-year sentence.
U.S. District Court Judge R. Barclay Surrick declined to order the prison to keep Savage in Philadelphia, but said he would consider any motion filed by Warren if Savage were moved. Warren said his client's right to a fair trial would be hampered if he could not meet regularly with his attorney.
Savage was brought back to Philadelphia from Florence to face the new round of charges.
The government alleges that he participated in 11 of the 12 murders listed in the indictment, including ordering from prison the firebombing of the North Sixth Street home of Carmella Coleman, the mother of a witness who was cooperating against Savage in the 2005 drug case.
Two co-defendants, Lamont Lewis and Robert Merritt, are charged with carrying out the arson on Savage's orders. The fourth defendant in the case is Steven Northington.
Coleman, another woman and four children ranging in age from 15 months to 15 years died in the early-morning fire. Coleman was the mother of Eugene "Twin" Coleman, a Savage associate who testified against him.
The infant killed in the fire was Eugene Coleman's son Damir Jenkins.
The pending case against Savage is built around informant testimony and secretly recorded conversations, including dozens picked up on an electronic listening device hidden in Savage's prison cell at the Federal Detention Center on Arch Street while he was awaiting trial in the 2005 drug trafficking case.
The tapes include graphic and expletive-laden rants in which Savage vows revenge on witnesses and their families. He also jokes about the victims of the firebombing, suggesting that Eugene Coleman should have brought barbecue sauce to their funerals.
Coleman testified against Savage in the 2005 trial and is expected to testify again in the pending case.