Silence harms an entire community
When criminals roam free, everyone suffers
By Maureen Boyle, Enterprise staff writer
Shawna Devine was in her car, waiting to leave a crowded lot outside a Brockton nightclub after one of her few nights out with friends.
Then gun shots rang out.
Devine, 29, would be dead, struck by a stray bullet.
Two of the three men accused of killing her would later go free after witnesses who first identified the gunmen recanted.
Since then, Devine’s family has wondered whether her death could have been prevented if someone in the days, months or years before the killing had come forward to tell police about earlier crimes committed by the suspects.
“They might have been in jail,” Devine’s mother, Shirley Grant Tucker, said of the perpetrators.
When the streets stay silent, when witnesses turn away out of fear or misplaced loyalty, the community suffers, criminals become bolder and unease settles over a community.
Innocents are struck by stray bullets. Homeowners haul out “for sale” signs. House prices drop as crime rates increase. Businesses move out and others are reluctant to move in.
“The fear breaks down the sense of community,” says Patricia W. Gavin, director of the criminal justice program at Anna Maria College in Paxton. “Whether or not that fear is real or perceived, it is real to the people, and decisions are made on the perceptions.”
For more than a year, The Enterprise has been taking a close look at the so-called “code of silence” on the street — examining court records and crime statistics; interviewing dozens of investigators, victims, community leaders, business people and neighbors; going to crime scenes, and watching dozens of trials to see — firsthand — what effect it’s having.
What we found is the code of silence often keeps gun-toting criminals on the street and leaves a justice system handcuffed to stop it.
Of the 28 murders in Brockton since 2006, nine remain unsolved because witnesses refused to cooperate.
In at least two cases, suspected killers went free because witnesses lied or refused to testify.
Dozens of police probes into non-fatal shootings have been hampered as well.
Few people suspected of lying to authorities go to jail. Of the 27 people charged with perjury in Plymouth County in 2006 and 2007, only three were convicted.
“When the police don’t get the offenders off the street because witnesses won’t come forward, it affects the quality of life of residents,” Ward 4 Councilor Paul Studenski, the city’s former police chief, said. “Innocent people, bystanders, are getting hurt.”
Witnesses are key
For someone to be prosecuted, police need hard evidence and that evidence often comes from people who heard someone confess and can identify the person — people who saw the crime.
“You need involved witnesses,” Taunton Police Chief Raymond O’Berg said.
The code of silence is not just an urban problem. Smaller towns are seeing more teens refuse to cooperate with authorities. And slayings in suburban towns such as Carver and Berkley remain unsolved because witnesses won’t talk.
It’s not a new problem. It has been called “omerta” by the Sicilian Mafia, “no snitching” by modern-day street runners and the “code of silence” by investigators.
The philosophy, historians believe, may date to the 1600s, when Sicily was ruled by Spain and refused to cooperate with the invaders.
Breaking the code today — as then — can mean ostracization in some communities, the threat or actual death in others.
“People don’t want to stick their necks out and get themselves shot,” said Michael A. Vitali, a Brockton defense attorney who teaches the course, “The Accused,” at Stonehill College.
Silenced by fear
Witnesses are rarely killed but when they are, it can send a chilling message.
In Bridgeport, Conn. an 8-year-old boy and his mother were shot to death in 1999 to stop them from testifying in a murder case. In Rhode Island, a 15-year-old girl was gunned down in 2000 just before she was set to testify in a murder case.
One of Vitali’s clients, David Gomes, was shot and wounded in 2005 the day before he was to testify in a murder case. One year later, he was gunned down at a Brockton apartment.
A suspect in the abduction of a man found slain in a Brockton backyard in 2005 was acquitted of kidnapping charges last year when witnesses clammed up. And two innocent people — including a 7-year-old boy — were caught in the cross-fire on a Brockton street, an incident police suspected involved warring gangs. Witnesses were uncooperative.
“It only takes one case to get around the neighborhood for people to feel it could happen to them,” said Julie Whitman, co-author of “Snitches Get Stitches: Youth, Gangs and Witness Intimidation in Massachusetts.”
“It doesn’t matter whether a particular witness is threatened. The fear is what keeps victims from participating.”
To get their message across, gang members hover in courthouse hallways and courtrooms, watching — and glaring at — witnesses in what authorities say are calculated moves to intimidate.
“There is a group of kids out there who think they are in the Wild West,” said Brockton City Councilor-at-large Thomas Brophy.
The number of people responsible for most crimes is low so putting just one in prison can mean a drop in crime. If one person comes forward in just one of those crimes, others can be prevented, authorities said.
Few witnesses ask for protection but when they do, prosecutors will help them move.
In Bristol County, authorities helped 15 witnesses and their families relocate in 2007 and 13 in the first seven months of this year.
In Plymouth County, nine were relocated in 2007 and 15 so far in the first seven months of this year through the state Witness Protection Program.
But the “no snitching” culture has continued to haunt Brockton — and other communities — for more than two decades, fueling crime and tainting the city or town’s reputation.
“People are not thinking about the great school system we have, the beautiful park, the professional baseball team,” said Brophy. “They are thinking it is a violent place to live. It is an image out there that we have had as long as I have been here.”