Taking the Stand: What it Means for Murder Witnesses in D.C.

When Misty Gibson was subpoenaed to testify in the murder trial against Andre Miles on December 1, she refused to cooperate out of fear for her life.

Your promises don’t mean shit,” she told a prosecutor.

When Gibson continued to refuse, Judge John Ramsey Johnson held her in contempt of court. After four days in the D.C. jail, she conceded. But when she failed to appear at Superior Court on December 10, Johnson issued a bench warrant.

Gibson is a murder witness, and a trial relies heavily on witnesses. But many, like Gibson, fear for their safety.

Making a decision as to whether you’re going to help take a murderer off the street is not a decision to be taken lightly,” Police Chief Cathy Lanier said in an interview with Homicide Watch. “I get that. I mean I do get that.”

MPD offers protection, but that often means relocating, and staying away from old neighborhoods and old friends.

There’s nothing easy about relocating,” Lanier said. “There just isn’t. But there’s also nothing easy about being the witness to a murder.”

The police chief added: “Your life is forever changed when you witness a murder. Whether you cooperate with police or prosecutors, your life is never going to be the same.”

The fear of testifying is not unfounded. Ronald Deacon Smith was expected to testify against David Warren, who was later convicted of murder for killing Ervin Lamont Griffin.

Smith was shot to death in November 2011. Dwayne Williams, a friend of Warren, was charged in Deacon’s death. Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner said the evidence “paints a pretty clear picture of Williams’ involvement in the death of a Government witness.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office extends protection and other services to victims, witnesses and their families, USAO spokesman William Miller said.

According to Miller, the Emergency Witness Assistance Program handles security concerns through measures that include housing relocation, monitored security systems, security lighting, locks, window security, emergency telephone service, transportation funds, counseling and social service referrals, as well as care for dependent children or elders. In extreme cases where witnesses have no other means of making a living, the program can also provide temporary subsistence.

The Victims Witness Assistance Unit provides additional services. The 30-person staff includes advocates and security specialists and offers services such as crisis prevention, court accompaniment and assistance crafting victim impact statements.

Miller says the Attorney’s Office typically spends around $2 million on witness security each year.

In 2013, for example, the office’s Victim Witness Assistance Unit interviewed 674 witnesses about security concerns,” Miller wrote in an email. “A total of 150 witnesses received help with relocation, transportation, and other security-related assistance through the Emergency Witness Assistance Program, along with 389 of their dependents.”

Beyond protection, Miller said the justice system can add deterrents.

The office aggressively investigates and prosecutes criminals who intimidate, threaten or hurt witnesses willing to stand up and tell the truth,” Miller said.

Each court [Superior and Federal] has a strong obstruction of justice statute, and we frequently prosecute individuals when our witnesses are threatened or harmed, or if their property is damaged as a result of their role as a victim or witness.”

Obstruction of justice charge carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence of three years and a maximum of 30 years. In Federal court, attempting to kill a witness is punishable up to 30 years in prison. Crimes of bodily injury or property damage against witnesses have a 20-year maximum prison sentence.

Public safety depends upon individuals who are willing to come forward with information about crimes and those who commit them,” Miller said. “When people do come forward, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia does everything it can to ensure their safety.”

Since 2010, the USAO has issued six press releases announcing convictions for the murder or attempted murder of a witness. D.C. judges ordered long sentences in all of the cases.

  • John Foreman, 20, was sentenced to 33 years in prison in 2010 for the 2008 murder of 19-year-old Arthur Gale. When Gale and Foreman’s brother, Maurice Foreman, were arrested after a shoot-out in July 2008, Gale and others told police that Maurice Foreman had a firearm, the October 2010 press release states. In October 2008, Foreman and Gale — who were friends — were hanging out at an elementary school playground with two other individuals on the 700 block of Columbia Road Northwest. Gale and one of the individuals began shooting at a vehicle. Foreman shot Gale in the back after the four of them walked into an alley and continued to shoot him multiple times in the head.
  • In 2011, Bobby Johnson, 30, received a 33-year prison sentence for assault charges against an unnamed individual who was expected to testify against his brother for criminal charges relating a robbery. According to a January 7 press release, Johnson shot at the victim at least 15 times. The victim survived but was seriously injured after being hit by four of the bullets.
  • In 2012, three people were sentenced for killing witnesses. In March, Anthony Waters, 44, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing 37-year-old Derrick Harris. Waters and Harris belonged to a crew in the Parkchester neighborhood. The press release states that Harris was shunned by his friends in 1998 after he testified about a Barry Farm murder from 1996. In July 2010, Harris returned to his old neighborhood for the first time in 12 years. Waters saw Harris and threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave. Later that night, Waters saw Harris again—he shot him once in the head and five times in the back.
  • Weldon Gordon, a 34-year-old Maryland man, was sentenced in May to life in prison for killing a witness, committing obstruction of justice by tampering with a witness and two federal drug charges. Andre Hayes, 32, purchased narcotics from Gordon in May 2008 while he was working as a confidential informant for the DEA, according to a press release. Gordon was arrested and indicted the following September on drug charges for his sale with Hayes. Five days after his arrest, a co-conspirator lured Hayes to Gordon’s driveway. Gordon shot Hayes three times while he sitting in a parked vehicle.
  • Mark Pray, 31, and Alonzo Marlow, 32, received life sentences in June. Among dozens of other charges, a press release states the two were charged with killing 44-year-old witness Crystal Washington three days before their trial in April 2009. Pray was sentenced to life in prison plus 130 years. Marlow was sentenced to life in prison plus 55 years.
  • In July 2014, a D.C. judge sentenced 24-year-old Willie Walker to 88 years in prison and 23-year-old Ricky Donaldson to 45 years in prison for violent crime charges that included the March 2008 murder of 44-year-ol Delois Persha. According to the press release, Walker shot Persha multiple times in the torso and the face after they got in an argument. Persha survived and identified Walker to police. From his jail cell, Walker conspired with Donaldson to kill the witness against Walker. Persha, who was relocated from the LeDroit Park area after she was shot in March, returned to the area in September. Donaldson shot her multiple times in the back and head. Persha died five days later.

Weldon Gordon will spend the rest of his life behind bars because he chose to shoot a witness rather than take responsibility for his crack dealing,” U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. said according to the press release.

This life sentence demonstrates that striking out against witnesses is no way to escape justice. Nothing strengthens the resolve of law enforcement more than pursuing and punishing criminals who foolishly decide to intimidate, threaten, or hurt a witness willing to stand up and tell the truth.”

The effectiveness of the government’s witness protection program depends on how closely witnesses adhere to the rules. MPD Chief Lanier emphasized that witnesses who stay in the program and avoid returning to the area are never killed.

The important thing I’d say about that is: We never have witnesses that are killed,” Lanier said. “I mean we offer witness protection, and we offer some means to protect people, and if they take that protection and follow the rules, they’re never killed.”

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