Congressman Looks to Combat Witness Intimidation

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, talks about his efforts to combat witness intimidation. He's promoting legislation to provide $90 million to help local police forces protect witnesses to crimes who feel threatened by the accused criminals.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

In Baltimore, police estimate that nearly a quarter of all gun-related crimes and as many as 50 percent of non-fatal shooting cases do not make it to trial because witnesses are afraid to testify, and many believe for good reason. In recent years, more than a dozen witnesses have been shot, disappeared or killed after agreeing to testify against drug dealers in that city, and since November, gang members have been circulating a now-infamous DVD called "Stop Snitching." The message is simple.

(Soundbite of "Stop Snitching")

Unidentified Man: We've got a lot of rats up here we want to expose. And, I mean, there ain't too many of them because we deal with them. You see what I'm saying? We don't really know who the real rats is, but we've got a couple of them that we do know, but they ain't around here no more. You see what I'm saying?

GORDON: A congressional hearing Monday in Baltimore focused on new legislation introduced in response to the wave of witness intimidation and murders there and in other cities across the country. Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Baltimore in the US House of Representatives and he is the sponsor of the Witness Security and Protection Act of 2005.

Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS (Democrat, Maryland): The reason why I picked up on the witness intimidation issue is because so many cases are not going to trial, not only in Baltimore but throughout the entire country, because folks are committing crimes and then threatening people and telling them that if they are to testify in a trial that they're going to do them harm. And in many instances, that's exactly what they're doing. Not only are they harming them but they are killing them. And so in order to have any kind of reasonable criminal justice system, you've got to have cooperation of the public. And when you fail to have that cooperation, your criminal justice system erodes. In other words, a person can go out there, commit a crime and not have to worry about having to answer for it because no one will be available to testify against them.

GORDON: Not too long ago, Congressman, in fact, just a couple of years ago, we saw the nation's attention brought to Baltimore when we saw a home fire bombed. And inhabitants of that home died in the fire, based on a fire bombing alleged to have been perpetrated by those who believe that family was snitching on drug dealers. I'm curious, was this the impetus that really moved you?

Rep. CUMMINGS: No doubt about it. This was the Dawson family. They were incinerated at about 3:00 in the morning several years ago because they merely were cooperating with the police and asking the police to help them rid their community of drugs. The young man decided to throw a Molotov cocktail into their window, and a family of seven, two adults and five children, perished in that fire. And that was only because they were trying to do something to help themselves and their community. And so, you know, we can't have that. We cannot have drug dealers and salespersons, in particular, sending out these messages that if you, quote, "snitch," unquote, that you are going to be hurt. And so we--and we're seeing it more and more.

Let me give you the--another point that goes with that. Twenty-five percent of all of our cases in Baltimore, for example, that do not involve a fatality never get to trial because of witness intimidation. We just had testimony that 99 percent of all cases that involve a fatality have some element of witness intimidation in them. Somebody's threatened somebody. Judges have to find ways to try to get people to come to trial and testify, and that's a real problem.

GORDON: And as you suggest, this is far more pervasive than I think most people realize. We talked about this in our Roundtable, but there are literally dueling DVDs out on the streets, one from the drug dealers called "Stop Snitching," if you will, and that has been passed out in neighborhoods suggesting that that is not what you would want to do for fear of your life. The other, "Keep Talking," is a counter-DVD made by police officers.

Rep. CUMMINGS: That's right. The "Stop Snitching" DVD made by the drug salespersons is one--I tell you, it's chilling and I'm one who lives in the city and lived there all my life and have heard all kinds of language and seen all kinds of things as a criminal lawyer. I've seen a lot. But let me tell you something: This DVD basically says that `If you dare cooperate with the police, we are going to kill you, period.' And not only have we had that problem, but we've had a situation where there has been reporters in our area who have been threatened simply because they were reporting on the DVD. And, by the way, that DVD, unfortunately, has Carmelo Anthony in it, one of our most noted professional basketball players, and that didn't help matters any because what that did was, in the words of young people, it kind of blew it up and made it even a bigger deal.

GORDON: Now there are those who suggest that this video was really made on a whim, that it wasn't serious, and that this has been blown out of proportion. You've just suggested you've been around awhile, seen things. You do not believe that to be the case.

Rep. CUMMINGS: Oh, I don't believe that. As a matter of fact, there is documentation that this was aimed at some particular people. And as you watch this DVD, it becomes clear that it's being aimed at some person--you don't--you can't really tell, but because the people who hang out in these groups and gangs--they know all the language--it's clear that it is aimed at some particular folks. But, see, the thing is it doesn't just affect them. The DVD says, `If you cooperate with the police, we don't care who you are.' You can be the 78-year-old lady who's been living in the neighborhood for the last 40 years or the gentleman--the deacon in the church; if you make a call to the police, you are dead.

And the interesting thing to bear out what I said about the realness of it, already three people that appeared in the video have been arrested for some very, very serious charges that really had nothing too much to do with the video itself. In other words, they didn't get arrested because they appeared in the DVD, but because of their drug activity in general in the community, then that has the result of getting them arrested and being charged with crimes.

GORDON: And we should note for Mr. Anthony, who is not here--Carmelo Anthony is a Baltimore native and he is represented to have suggested that these were people that he's known throughout his years. He grew up with some of these and just by happenstance appears in this video, but certainly doesn't endorse...

Rep. CUMMINGS: That is correct. That is what he has said.

GORDON: Let me ask you this. What do you hope that this act, the Witness Security and Protection Act, will do?

Rep. CUMMINGS: Well, what the act would do is bring some $90 million to state and local governments to help them carry out witness protection programs. Basically, what you have now is you have a federal program--but let me tell you, most of us the trials that we have that involve witness intimidation are not on the federal level; they're on the state level, and most states don't have money to even protect witnesses.

Now keep in mind, we are providing all kinds of new police organizations in Afghanistan and Iraq and other places around the world, but when it comes to protecting our own witnesses here in this country, we do very little on the state level. So what it would do is allow for $90 million to be allocated to the states and--so that they can then protect their witnesses. And it would be patterned, in large part, after the the United States Marshal Service program, which after 30 years have--their witness protection program has never lost one witness over 30 years, which is astounding. We just don't have that level of protection in our states. As a matter of fact, just in Baltimore in the last six or seven months, we've lost seven people already to violence involving witness intimidation, and they--in other words, they're dead.

GORDON: Congressman, let me take you, before we lose our time here, to a couple of other issues on the peripheral, and that's what's being dealt with and talked about there on Capitol Hill, and that's the whole question of the filibuster, in particular with the situation of the nominated judges. Are we going to see an up-and-down vote? Are we going to see some horse trading here? What's your thought?

Rep. CUMMINGS: You know, I think that there probably will be some horse trading, but I would hope that there would not be. I just think that the Republicans have gone far too far in this effort to have right-wing judges appointed to the bench. Nobody ever said that when you give advice and consent, which is what the Senate has to do, that every single person is going to be confirmed. Basically, what the president is saying is that `If I nominate somebody and we're in the majority'--and because these votes are done on party lines, as you well know, he's saying automatically, `My people should be judges.' Well, that's not what the Constitution says. It says `the advice and consent of the Senate.' And some would argue that this is advice and consent. Well, the fact is that if you're not the party in control, then you're powerless to do anything about it, and I just don't think that's the way the Founding Fathers meant for it to be.

And one other thing: When it comes to people who have been disadvantaged and left out of the system, and many of whom are minorities, what happens is that the courts are their last resort, in many instances, to get any kind of justice. And if you have judges that are already bent on--have a huge conservative bent to their decisions, that's a real problem. So there becomes no backstop for them. There's nowhere for them to go to receive justice, in my mind. And I'm a lawyer. I've practiced for over 20 years, and I can tell you that I just think trying to get rid of the filibuster with regard to judges is a major, major mistake and would be a tremendous setback to our justice system.

GORDON: Let me ask you this with literally about a minute to go. You mentioned being a lawyer.

Rep. CUMMINGS: Yes, sir.

GORDON: You're a man of all trades; renaissance man, a reverend, a lawyer, a congressman, and there are those who want you to look at the Senate seat. We heard from Kweisi Mfume on this program. There were whispers that you were weighing possibly running for Mr. Sarbanes' seat. Where do you stand on that?

Rep. CUMMINGS: Well, you know, Kweisi Mfume is a good friend of mine and we--as a matter of fact, we grew up together. And I'm a very practical elected official. You could not have two African-Americans in the state of Maryland running for office and they not cancel each other out. It just doesn't work. The numbers don't work. Sadly, in this day and age, there are still a number of people who refuse to vote for an African-American candidate. I understand that. That's getting less and less, but the fact is that it still exists. And so I can't see any scenario that would put me in the race right now. I just don't see it.

GORDON: All right. Well, Congressman Elijah Cummings, as always, we appreciate your time and thanks for joining us today.

Rep. CUMMINGS: Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up, Condi gets tough, and what do African-Americans tend to watch on television? We'll tackle all that on our Roundtable, next.

This is NPR News.

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