Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Dad to daughter: "you don't remember nothing."

On the morning of February 11, 2004, Faheem Thomas-Childs, was passing through the schoolyard gate, at T.M. Peirce Elementary School in Philadelphia, when he was shot in the head. The crossing-guard at the corner was shot in the foot and dozens of children and parents ran for cover as four thugs traded gunfire in front of the busy school entrance. He was dead before he could be loaded into an ambulance.

At least 50 rounds filled the air, fired from the guns of Kareem Johnson, Kennell Spady, Cassius Broaster, and Jerome Broaster. None of the shooters were hit and, despite dozens of witnesses, only 8 persons were willing to testify. All eight of them recanted their testimony before or at the trial.

In a non-jury trial, Common Pleas Judge Jane Cutler Greenspan convicted Kareem Johnson and Kennell Spady of first-degree murder, rejecting the self-defense argument. (By their own statements, they went to the school that morning because they knew that the Broaster brothers would be dropping their children off. They were armed to the teeth.)

On Monday, April 24, 2006, the father of one of the witnesses, Devonzo Lawson, was charged with “solicitation to commit perjury” and “witness intimidation” for instructing his 18 year old daughter, Taniesha Wiggins, to recant her testimony in the Thomas-Childs case. Ms. Wiggins was one of the parents present at the school the morning that young Thomas-Childs was slaughtered. She correctly identified Johnson and Spady as the shooters and gave a detailed account of the scene to the investigators.

In court, Devonzo Lawson told her “you don’t remember nothing.” As she walked to the witness stand, he stopped her and told her to “[s]ay what I told you to say… [t]hat you don’t remember nothing.” In essence, “don’t be a snitch.” Or, more generously, “don’t get yourself or your family killed by being a hero.”

USA Today offers up, as a spokesman for the “Don’t Snitch” campaign that is sweeping the nation, Rayco Saunders, an ex drug dealer turned pro boxer, who wears a “stop snitching” shirt to “protest paid police informants.” (www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-03-28-stop-snitching_x.htm?POE=NEWISVA)

In an interview at the gym where he trains, he outlined a stop-snitching creed:

• Don't snitch on others just to save yourself. "Stop snitching is for those guys out there ... selling more drugs than Noriega, and their only out is to tell on somebody. ... If a (criminal) wants to be a Good Samaritan, OK. But send (him) to jail. Don't give him immunity to do what he wants on the street."

• Stop Snitching doesn't mean stop talking to police. "It's always misconstrued by the public, or the powers that be, that we're trying to intimidate the regular people or the law-abiding citizens. That's not what it's about. ... If that is your only outlet, to call the police, that's what you do."

• But witnesses have no obligation to help police. "Do your job — you're the police. ... I've been wronged by the system. Do you think I would help the system? ... Do cops snitch on other cops?"

• The authorities can't protect witnesses. "What's happening to the innocent witness? They get dead or ... terrorized for life."

• Sometimes you must right wrongs yourself. "I'm a man, and I can handle my own situations like a man. ... I've done dirt. I'll admit that. So I can't run to the police."

Noble sentiments to be sure. Don’t be a tool of the government only to lesson your own penalties, but don’t be afraid to do the right thing if you’re a regular person. But, how is this being interpreted on the streets of Philadelphia?

Michael Harmon of Philadelphia writes “When the police or a government agency can protect not only the person snitching but their family too, for long periods, then I can promote ‘step up, speak up,’ but until then it would be suicide to snitch.” (www.philadelphiaweekly.com/view.php?ID=11846)

The numbers support his view:

Of the 380 murders in Philadelphia in 2005, a 9, an 11, a 13, and a 15 year old child was gunned down. Another five 16 year-olds were murdered and 7 seventeen year old boys. In 2006, we already have a 14 year old and two 15 year old children in their graves and the “long, hot summer” hasn’t even begun.

I am inclined to think that Mr. Lawson loves his daughter and was telling her to remain silent so that she wouldn’t be a target. Perhaps he though that, while tragic, Faheem Thomas-Childs, is dead and no amount of justice will bring him back or justify the loss. Maybe the consequences of fingering the murderers were present in his mind and he thought “why add another shooting or arson to the list of consequences of this senseless murder?” Surely Mr. Lawson is aware that associates of the shooters are out there and that they are as ruthless and irrational as they come. Can we blame him for advising his daughter to “not get involved?”

I was trying to think of what I would do. I can’t.

I like to think I would stand up for myself, my family, my community, Justice. I like to imagine that I would buy a gun and guard my daughter too and from every event… that I would proudly sit in the courtroom and stare down any thug who gave her a dirty look as she fingered the murderers. Only… I’m not so sure that the knowledge, that I couldn’t protect her and that she could be killed at the drop of a hat, would fail to work its horrible spell on my resolve.

In the end, as Rayco Saunders must surely know, “don’t snitch” is a warning. It is tantamount to saying to all of those around you “I am a thug. If I perceive that you told anyone about my evil deeds or if you stand up to me, I will kill you. And, if I cannot kill you myself, others, unknown to you, will do it for me.”

How do we deal with this? What would you do?


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