The mothers of Miami shooting victims are determined to protect the identities of people who talk to cops. But some fear a new law would deny suspects the right to face their accuser.
Sitting in the backyard of his home in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood on Saturday afternoon, August 22, 2009, Antonio Johnson had plenty to look forward to. A young father with another baby on the way, he was supposed to start a new job that Monday, according to his mother, Myrna Williams-Cammon.
Suddenly, a former childhood friend of the 21-year-old came into his backyard and pulled out a gun, his mother tells VICE. Loud pops shattered the air, and bullets tore through Johnson and his pregnant girlfriend, who was sitting next to him. She and the baby survived, but Johnson was killed.
More than six years after his death, Johnson's killer remains free because the only person who provided a name to Miami-Dade Police homicide investigators is also dead, his mother alleges. (A department spokesman declined comment on the still-open investigation). She also claims the killer and the dead witness knew her son very well, but that she does not want to disclose their identities for fear of reprisal.
"The person police believe killed my son practically grew up in my house," Williams-Cammon says. "Apparently, he thought my son was talking to the police about him."
Today, Williams-Cammon is on a mission to end the "no-snitching" culture in Florida's inner-city neighborhoods, especially in her home county of Miami-Dade, where there have been two dozen gun-related incidents involving juveniles in the past 13 months, according to local police reports. On Tuesday, Williams-Cammon and 29 other mothers of murder victims traveled to Tallahassee, the State Capitol, to show support for a bill aimed at protecting the personal identities of witnesses in homicide investigations.
"It may be too late for my son," Williams-Cammon says, "but this bill could help other parents find justice for their murdered children."
The only problem is that the legislative solution Williams-Cammon and her coalition seek threatens to infringe on a suspect's right to face their accuser, civil liberties advocates warn. The debate points to the larger, perennial frustration investigators and prosecutors face across America when trying to convince people who have knowledge about violent crimes to come forward.
"I understand what they are trying to do, but [the bill] doesn't make sense," says Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation. "It is contrary to everything our criminal justice system stands for."
Ed Narain, a Democratic state representative from Tampa, insists his legislation will not prevent defendants and their attorneys from gaining access to witness information during the discovery phase of a case. Instead, he argues the law would only prohibit the media and general public from finding out the names and other personal data about witnesses.
"It's good policy," Narain tells me. "We have to do something to restore people's faith in the criminal justice process."
Narain adds that killings in his home city motivated him to propose the bill, singling out the shooting death of 14-year-old Edward Harris III in May of last year. The teen had survived a prior drive-by, and his father believed Harris was killed for cooperating with police, according to a local CBS news report.
"The victims are not gang bangers," Narain says. "These are good kids who were doing the right thing."
Since filing the bill last fall, Narain has gained support from the Tampa Police Department, which has not been able to make arrests in half of the 62 murder cases initiated in 2014 and 2015, according to department spokeswoman Andrea Davis.
"This is a very real problem," Davis writes VICE in an email. "We have violent crimes where there were dozens of witnesses, but they don't provide the information needed to arrest someone. Many times that is due to fear of some type of retaliation."
Since January, when Narain introduced his bill at the beginning of the Florida state legislative session, the Miami caravan of victims' mothers has traveled to the State Capitol several times to urge legislators to pass the witness protection law, Williams-Cammon says. She believes the bill will make a huge difference in Miami-Dade's inner city neighborhoods, where many gun victims are 18 and under and a high number of homicide cases go unsolved.
February has been a particularly violent month for some children and teenagers in Florida's most populous county.
On the second day of the month, two elementary schools in the city of Opa-Locka were put on lockdown while cops searched the area for shooters who opened fire on a car at a Burger King drive-thru. One victim, 17-year-old Donesha S. Gantt, used her cell phone to live stream dramatic video on Facebook of what she thought were her final moments.
"I know they shot me, but it's good," a sobbing Gantt says in the footage. "God, forgive me for all my sins." Gantt and another woman in the car who was also shot survived the attack. Ten days later, three other public schools were put on lockdown while officers canvassed the area for gunmen who shot up a house in Miami Gardens. In the past week, three teenagers got shot in a 24-hour span; two survived, while 16-year-old La-Nard Wilcher was killed.
Between January of last year and this month, 25 people between the ages 7 and 19 were shot in Miami-Dade, based on a search of daily press releases put out by the Miami Police and county police departments. Fourteen of them died.
In a statement before the Florida Senate criminal justice committee earlier this week, Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvahlohe suggested the numbers are even higher. "Over the past 12 months alone, 60 school age children have been shot in Miami," Carvahlo said. "Over 20 have lost their lives."
In addition, 90 out of 126 homicide cases that occurred between January 1 and January 31, 2013, in the county's Northside District—which includes parts of inner city neighborhoods such as Brownsville and Liberty City—remain unsolved, according to Miami-Dade spokesman Detective Daniel Ferrin. The district also has a homicide clearance rate of 28.6 percent during the same period, which is significantly lower than the national murder clearance rate of 64.5 percent, according to 2014 FBI crime statistics, the most recent available. In a recent press statement, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said "only five of 100 shooting/homicide incidents in the Liberty City area result in an arrest."
The overwhelming support shown by the Miami area parents helped the legislation move quickly through several Florida House and Senate committees, as well as garner bipartisan support in the Republican controlled legislature, according to Narain.
However, the Senate criminal justice committee voted to temporarily postpone, making a recommendation in favor or against Narain's witness protection law. Narain expects the committee will reconsider voting on his bill next week. "I don't see anything standing in its way," Narain says. "But maybe I am naive."
But even if the bill gets approved by the full legislature and Governor Rick Scott, the law would likely be challenged in court, according to Petersen of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.
"There's a lot of room for prosecutorial misconduct involving uncredible witnesses," she says. "Plus, you cannot be accused anonymously of murder."
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