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August 29, 2014, 12:13 pm

Witness protection a persistent struggle

Rodney Ramseur and his girlfriend, Latia Jones, were sitting on the porch of his residence Monday evening, May 14 when an unidentified young Black male walked up to the couple and fired several shots, killing them both.

It’s early in the investigation and so far the actual motive hasn’t been determined, but detectives are speculating that Ramseur was targeted because he was a witness to a 2010 shooting. While that hasn’t been confirmed, it nonetheless has raised the issue of how to best protect witnesses in criminal cases — especially at a time of limited financial resources. Ramseur’s family is saying that he wasn’t protected by the police or the District Attorney’s office.

“We need our witnesses to fight crime and help get criminals off of our streets,” said Tasha Jamerson, spokesperson for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. “And the public should know that witness intimidation doesn’t just involve homicide cases, not anymore. Witnesses in illegal gun cases have been threatened also. But we are able to protect witnesses through our relocation program, and the public should also be aware of the fact that we have never turned anyone away who asked for our help. The police are very adept at determining when someone is being threatened. Any witness in any case who feels threatened would be offered services by both our office and the police department. We would never turn away anyone who asks for our help.”

In Philadelphia, the District Attorney’s office operates a witness relocation program. Witnesses who are going to testify in court can have themselves and their families moved on a moment’s notice to a safe location. No one who has been in the program and followed its protocols, such as staying out of previous neighborhoods, has ever been harmed.

It has often been said by numerous law enforcement officials and legislators that witness intimidation tears away at the very structure of the criminal justice system. When a crime has been committed and witnesses refuse to testify — either out of fear or the twisted code of ‘no snitching’ — cases can and often do get dismissed and criminals go free. On the federal level, witness protection has saved the lives of many people by providing not just relocation to another state but new identities as well. Of course, the witness takes considerable risks if they ever return to their old haunts — which is what happened to 23-year-old Chante Wright in 2008.

In January of that year, Wright returned to Philadelphia to see a relative who was gravely ill. She had been in federal witness protection after testifying against alleged drug dealer Hakim Bey in connection with the murder of Moses Williams in 2000. Bey is a relative of Dawud Bey, an associate of convicted drug dealer Kaboni Savage, who will be coming up for federal prosecution again in the case of the Coleman Family murders — a case where a family was killed in retaliation against a witness.

Wright had been in Philadelphia for only seven hours before she and her friend Octavia Green were both gunned down in the Grays Ferry section of Philadelphia, allegedly by Laquaille Bryant, an associate of Bey, who is now serving a life sentence for both murders. Wright was the second witness in the Moses Williams murder case, being killed after Omar Morris, who was shot to death on Christmas morning 2002.

“Witness intimidation affects many violent crime cases,” said Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams recently when he went before City Council to ask for additional funding to hire 13 additional assistant district attorneys. “The grim reality is that witness intimidation negatively affects virtually every homicide, and has been more and more of a factor in our non-fatal shootings as well. When there is witness intimidation, my assistant district attorneys must dedicate more time to the underlying cases, trying to ensure that victims and witnesses continue to cooperate and testify at trial. What we know is that the District Attorney’s Office is underfunded. I have said this during each of my prior two budget hearings. When you compare us to other prosecutors’ offices in the largest counties in the country, we now have the second lowest funding.”

One of the most notorious cases of retaliation against a witness in the city was the murders of the family of Eugene Coleman. Coleman, an associate of drug dealer Kaboni Savage, agreed with federal prosecutors to testify against Savage. In response, Savage allegedly ordered the deaths of Coleman’s family, who perished when their house was firebombed on October 9, 2004. The victims were Marcella Coleman, 54; Coleman’s infant son, Damir Jenkins, 15 months old; Marcella Coleman’s niece, Tameka Nash, 34; her daughter, Khadjah Nash, 10; Marcella Coleman’s grandson Tahj Porchea, 12; and a family friend, Sean Rodriguez, 15.

“Witness intimidation pervades our society, even in cases where it’s just perceived — that people just think they may be threatened,” said Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross. “It’s a problem across the country and in every criminal case and because of it, whether actual or just perceived, witnesses can be reluctant to come forward — and this is exactly what criminals want. It starts on the street with people who may have seen something and are told that if they say anything then something bad will happen. Now most of these guys don’t have the means to actually carry out a threat, but just the perception is often enough to deter witnesses. It ties our hands and emboldens criminals. But factually speaking it’s not as widespread as it is perceived to be — in the lion’s share of homicide cases it’s not an issue. Does it happen? Yes, but not nearly as often as people think it does.”

As the investigation into the murders of Ramseur and Jones continues, as of Tribune press time no suspects have been named. Ramseur had been a witness to the May 3, 2010, shooting of Savoeun Ning and had testified against the suspect, Garland Doughty on May 8. Doughty is now being held at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

Eyewitnesses of the shooting described the suspect as a Black male who was wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans, who fled the scene down Third Street in the direction of Godfrey Avenue. Ramseur, who originally gave a statement against Doughty, recanted his earlier testimony during the May 8 hearing. Ramseur was known to police, who continue to investigate to determine the exact motive in his killing.

“We have to look at every possibility, especially in a case like this,” Ross said.