Monday, January 17, 2005

Witness Intimidation by Gangs Rises

Inner city gangs in Boston and Baltimore have ratched up tactics meant to strike fear into anyone who might be tempted to testify against their members in court, according to a front page article in Sunday's New York Times [registration required].
"Witness intimidation has become so pervasive that it is ruining the public's faith in the criminal justice system to protect them, said Judge John M. Glynn of Baltimore City Circuit Court. "We are not much better off than the legal system in Mexico or Columbia or some other sad places."
This of course comes at a time when the US has been subjected to massive illegal immigration from exactly such "sad places." At least, the new immigrants should feel right at home. The Times notes that while the overall US crime rate has remained stable for the last four years, "juvenile gang homicides have jumped 25 percent since 2000," likely in response to a dramatic increase in gang activity during the same period, which has seen gangs spread from traditional large cities into the suburbs and even rural areas.

The problem has grown so severe that the FBI has taken the lead in combatting the growth of violent street gangs, comparing them to mafia-like criminal organizations. According to the Times, the federal government has created a task force to deal with street gangs and federal prosecutors will use federal racketeering laws (originally designed to stamp out organized crime syndicates) to pursue gang members.
Police chiefs and prosecutors call the effort welcome. William Bratton, the Los Angeles police chief, said street gang killings made up more than half of the 515 homicides in the city last year, including a number of witnesses. Mr. Bratton said that over the past year he had had a number of talks with Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the FBI, urging him to make street gangs the bureau's top priority. "In this country street gangs are a national problem and are taking more lives than all the civilians lost to Al Qaeda last year," Mr. Bratton said.

One of the obstacles to combating the Mafia, and to defeating youth gangs, is the "code of silence" they encourage, often by intimidating witnesses, Mr. Swecker said. One advantage the FBI will have is that by bringing federal charges against street gang members, witnesses can be placed in the federal witness protection program and given new identities.
The need to protect witnesses is critical. Daniel Conley, district attorney for Suffolk County, Massachusetts, told the Times that 90 percent of cases involving gangs or serious violence had seen some form of witness intimidation. According to Baltimore City prosecutor Wesley Adams, in 2003 "when he tried nine homicides, 23 of the 35 witnesses he managed to get to the stand either recanted or lied, and that was not counting the many others who were too scared and simply disappeared." The Times reported that witness disappearances had become so common, that Baltimore had assigned two full-time detectives just to locate missing witnesses. The article said, the two detectives "are currently looking for 77 people."

Thanks to the vigorous efforts of defense attorneys, liberal politicians and the ACLU, however, street criminals have enjoyed the leeway granted to them by the legal obstructions that limit the power of police and prosecutors that they have become giddily emboldened. So much so that they feel safe to mock the court, the victims and the witnesses in plain sight. The Times reported that at a December 2004 Boston "trial of two gang members accused of killing a 10 year old girl, some spectators came to the courtroom wearing T-shirts that said "Stop Snitching." Other prosecutors told the Times that some gangs send members into courtrooms so that they can use their cellphones to text message the names of witnessess and their testimony.
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.
Mr. Anthony's agent vigorously denied that the NBA player knew that he was being filmed for the DVD. The agent told the Times that Mr. Anthony had been "just hanging out with some guys from the neighborhood who had a video camera," and that Mr. Anthony does not "condone the message of intimidation." A smaller article in the Times, featured alongside the main article, noted that whilst on the DVD, Mr. Anthony:
... does little on the video: He smiles, he doubles over with laughter, and mostly just paces, even when another man, in a direct rant to the camera says he will "put a hole" in the head of people who cooperate with the police.
And the NBA wonders why it has an image problem? No consequence will come to Mr. Anthony for his appearance in this video. Several decades ago, it would such an incident would have cost him his career. But today no standards of civilized behavior are expected from athletes or anyone else, and no one - certainly not the NBA - will punish such behavior. Which is why American culture is rapidly becoming a sewer.


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