PHILADELPHIA – Two men were found guilty Thursday of fatally shooting a 10-year-old boy outside his elementary school, a case that bedeviled authorities for months because witnesses were reluctant to come forward.
Kennell Spady, 21, and Kareem Johnson, 22, were convicted of first-degree murder for their roles in a wild gunfight that caught Faheem Thomas-Childs in the crossfire as he walked to school on Feb. 11, 2004.
The defense had argued that the men, engaged in an argument with rival drug dealers, were acting in self-defense when they fired.
But Common Pleas Judge Jane Cutler Greenspan said the evidence told a different story. She also said the number of shots fired and the weapons carried by Johnson and Spady — including a carbine rifle and an assault weapon — proved they had intent to kill.
"This is arms for a hunt and not to chill and take a ride," Greenspan said.
The judge said she would sentence the men to life without parole at a formal sentencing hearing April 28. Defense lawyers said they would appeal on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
The non-jury trial over the past several weeks had been a nightmare for prosecutors, with at least eight witnesses recanting their earlier statements to police. One was Taniesha Wiggins, 18, who prosecutors say went voluntarily to police two days after the shooting and gave sworn, videotaped statements. But on the stand, she refused to verify what she said.
"You can't make me say nothing I don't want to say," she testified.
The case was seen as a textbook example of the code of silence that permeates many violent neighborhoods, with residents fearful of being seen as "snitches" and suffering retaliation.
"Because it involves a 10-year-old child murdered on his way to school, you would have thought there would have been a moral imperative to come forward," Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson said after the verdict.
Witness intimidation, real or perceived, comes as little surprise to those who investigate violent crime. In one of Philadelphia's most notorious cases, six relatives of an informant in a drug kingpin case were killed in a 2004 arson fire.
In Baltimore, a family who complained about local drug dealing was killed in a 2002 arson. And a camera phone was used last year to photograph a prosecutor, an investigator and a testifying witness in a gang-related case in Salem, Mass.
But the collective amnesia over the Philadelphia schoolyard slaying has intensified the city's awareness of the problem prosecutors face in overcoming witness fears.
According to prosecutors, the defendants were waiting with heavy artillery — including a carbine rifle and Uzi-like assault weapon — as brothers from the warring group dropped off their children at T.M. Peirce Elementary School in North Philadelphia. Dozens of children and adults were nearby.
More than 90 bullets were fired. Somehow, the bullets missed everyone except Faheem and a crossing guard who was shot in the foot. Police were able to identify the child when they found an unsent Valentine's Day card to his mother in his backpack.
Dozens of people saw the shooting, but few came forward despite authorities offering a $100,000 reward and witness protection.
Defense lawyers didn't fare well, either — two of their witnesses equivocated on Tuesday.
"Clearly, intimidation goes around because the two people we put on today also went south," said lawyer Tom Burke, who represents Spady. "I think it's the code of the streets."
Around the country, prosecutors and other officials have been taking steps to encourage witnesses to speak out. In Boston, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley believes witness intimidation in drug and gang cases has become so rampant it silences whole neighborhoods.
His office has worked to build community networks to fill courtrooms with supporters. Camera phones and T-shirts that say "Stop Snitching" have now been banned in state courtrooms throughout Massachusetts.
In Philadelphia, District Attorney Lynne Abraham has campaigned against the T-shirts, which have cropped up in numerous cities, and fought for funding for local witness protection. Last week, Gov. Ed Rendell agreed to restore $1 million statewide for that purpose, a token amount compared with spending on the federal witness-protection program.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department unveiled pilot programs in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, N.Y., this year to extend the federal witness-protection program to state cases.
But criminal defense lawyers say even promises of shortened jail sentences aren't always enough to overcome the fear of retribution.
"I've had people ... say they'd rather serve more time than spend the rest of their life looking over their shoulder," said Philadelphia defense lawyer Marc Neff. "It happens with greater and greater frequency."
Mark Ehlers, an assistant federal prosecutor who handled the drug kingpin case in Philadelphia, said prosecutors can pressure co-defendants to testify in exchange for lighter sentences, but don't have the same leverage with bystanders.
"All they can really appeal to is their sense of citizenship," Ehlers said.