Street gangs have become much more brazen and organized in their campaigns to intimidate and eliminate witnesses, reports the New York Times today. Not only have they adopted the “Godfather”-style of Sicilian omerta in demanding utter silence from their members and neighbors as well, they’ve actually started producing their own terror shows on DVD to emphasize their point:
In Boston, a witness to a shooting by a member of a street gang recently found copies of his grand jury testimony taped to all the doors in the housing project where he lives.
In Baltimore, Rickey Prince, a 17-year-old who witnessed a gang murder and agreed to testify against the killer, was shot in the back of the head a few days after a prosecutor read Mr. Prince’s name aloud in a packed courtroom.
And in each city, CD’s and DVD’s titled “Stop Snitching” have surfaced, naming some people street gangs suspect of being witnesses against them and warning that those who cooperate with the police will be killed. To underscore its message, the Baltimore DVD shows what appears to be three dead bodies on its back cover above the words “snitch prevention.”
These are only a few examples of what the police, prosecutors and judges say is a growing national problem of witness intimidation by youth gangs that in some cities is jeopardizing the legal system and that bears striking similarities to the way organized crime has often silenced witnesses.
The gangs have increasingly networked with each other to create crime cartels similar to the cooperation and competition between Mafia families of old. The FBI wants to restructure its focus on gang activity to destroy them in a similar manner as they did the Mafia families. Fox Butterfield reports that the FBI has now made gangs its top criminal priority, although he overstates its importance vis-a-vis terrorism. Counterterrorism is a different if related discipline. However, the change in focus is still significant, especially when one considers that bank robbery and other such traditional federal crimes still require attention. After all, up to now gangs have been treated as a local problem.
But the FBI attention isn’t the only indication that the problem has grown into a national problem. The DVD production of “Stop Snitching,” a form of “entertainment” being passed around gang-controlled neighborhoods, has its own special guest star:
Last month, the Baltimore police found that a two-hour DVD titled “Stop Snitching” was being sold on the street. It features young men smoking marijuana, flashing wads of $100 bills, waving guns and making violent threats, some against specific witnesses. “He’s a rat, a snitch,” one man sings, continuing with obscenities. “He’s dead because I don’t believe he’s from the ‘hood.”
The maker of the DVD has said he was only documenting the attitudes and concerns of people in West Baltimore.
The DVD has drawn particular attention because of the appearance on it of Carmelo Anthony, 20, a National Basketball Association star with the Denver Nuggets who grew up in Baltimore. Mr. Anthony does not make any threats in the DVD.
Calvin Andrews, Mr. Anthony’s agent, said, “He was not aware a DVD was being produced. He was just hanging out with some guys from the neighborhood who had a video camera.” Mr. Andrews added of Mr. Anthony: “He doesn’t condone the message about intimidation.” The case of Mr. Prince, the Maryland teenager murdered after his name was read in court, illustrates the difficulty of protecting witnesses.
The involvement of “Mr.” Anthony only highlights the increasing ties between gang chic and the professional sports industry. It’s no secret that NBA and NFL merchandising has targeted gangs and gangbanger wannabes for their products; a number of professional teams changed their colors in the 1990s to include black more prominently, a favorite of gangs for their colors. On our radio show yesterday we discussed the prison culture that permeates the NBA and to a lesser extent the NFL, and this shows the extent to which that has corrupted professional sports.
I welcome having a fresh and national focus on the gang problem. However, some of the solutions discussed for dealing with the witness intimidation threaten the openness of the American justice system:
Mr. Conley, the Suffolk County district attorney, is working with Massachusetts officials to create a state witness protection program here and to try to pass legislation that would make it a crime for anyone to distribute grand jury testimony, as happened with the witness who saw his testimony taped to the doors in the Franklin Hill housing project where he lived.
In Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Patricia C. Jessamy, the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, are supporting a bill that would reclassify witness intimidation as a felony, instead of a misdemeanor, and raise the maximum punishment to 20 years in prison, from 5 years.
The bill would also create a “hearsay exception” that would allow past statements by witnesses to be admitted at a trial if the witness disappeared or was unwilling to testify.
I think that the first two suggestions make a lot of sense. In fact, I’d say that witness intimidation should be scaled to the crime involved in the primary case and carry the same penalty, up to life imprisonment in murder cases. That might keep some of the parasites off of the witnesses, although I doubt it would stop them entirely. The last suggestion has much more danger associated with it. Essentially, it allows the prosecution to use unreliable witnesses in a wide variety of cases without the defense being able to cross-examine them in court in front of the jury. I understand the thought process behind the suggestion, but the unintended consequences of this change would dramatically tip the justice system against the defendant.
Hopefully, the renewed focus of the FBI can help to eliminate the scourge of gangbangers that has reduced our inner-city neighborhoods to war zones. If we can protect witnesses better through the federal system, I’m all for it.