As this Boston criminal lawyer returns to his five-blog-a-week post (after a bit of vacation time), I came across a story which is not supposed to happen. We see it all the time, of course, on television and in the movies, but, miraculously enough, it does not happen all that often in the Commonwealth’s reality.
It is a tale of Roxbury murder. It the shooting death of a mother and teenager who were apparently suspected by a perpetrator of cooperating with the Commonwealth in a pending homicide investigation. The youth, 17-year-old Elvis Sanchez, was shot this month after he appeared at a courthouse. When there, the Commonwealth pressed him to testify before a grand jury. He was, after all, believed by the Commonwealth to have knowledge of the June 5th killing of Wilfredo Martinez, a 23-year-old cook who had been slain in the housing development near Sanchez’s Roslindale home. Sanchez’s mother was also killed in the shooting of her son.
And so, now believing the two homicides are related, criminal investigators are looking into both deaths. This is according to officials…who spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to a spokesman from the Suffolk District Attorney, Sanchez was not a “cooperating witness” in Martinez’s shooting or any other slaying. However, he was clearly brought to the Grand Jury in hopes that he would testify for the government. It is, however, unclear as to whether or not he actually did provide such testimony.
The killing of Sanchez and his mother, Elvira Pimentel, 43, has renewed concerns about the risks of providing police with information about crimes, a longstanding problem in many Boston neighborhoods. “People don’t understand that part of the reason why they’re uncooperative is because either themselves as individuals or their families are being threatened,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, executive director of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, an antiviolence organization.
It also underscores the struggle of witnesses who must decide whether to come forward when they live in neighborhoods where even the perception that one has cooperated with authorities can be deadly.
There is a taxpayer-funded program which allows the Commonwealth to move certain witnesses and endangered relatives to other parts of the state for several months. Suffolk prosecutors often use this in cases gang violence, when intimidation has sometimes led to recantations and acquittals.
“We don’t leave people alone with their fear, and all we ask in return is the truth,” quoth the Commonwealth.
One remaining question that people seldom deal with, however, is what is that “truth”?
Attorney Sam’s Take On Murder Investigations And The Plight Of Witnesses
First of all, do not look for a Commonwealth conspiracy in the fact that Suffolk County will not reveal whether or not Sanchez actually gave information to the Grand Jury before he was slain. By law, proceedings in the Grand Jury are secret, at least until any resulting indictment is revealed.
Instead, let’s focus a large bit of this problem that seems to be too inconvenient to talk about…except in this blog. Namely, who determines what is true when the government, state or federal, decide who deserves attention.
The idea of safe-guarding witnesses, particularly in capital cases, is not new and not special to Massachusetts. We did the same thing in the Homicide bureau when I was a prosecutor in Brooklyn. However, such protections (and other gifts, which is a tale for another day), are reserved only for “cooperating” witnesses.
What is a “cooperating” witness?
Just as the quoted Commonwealth official explained above…someone who tells the Commonwealth the “truth”.
“Ok, Sam, what is the ‘truth’?”
The “truth”, as we have often discussed, is what the prosecution believes the truth to be. Anyone who tells them something different that is incompatible with that “truth”, is considered to be uncooperative.
That means no benefits. And, of course, such non-witnesses do not need protection because they are deemed uncooperative.
“But, Sam…do the people who see such people appear at the Grand Jury or District Attorney’s office know that?”
No…how could they?
See the problem?
In other words, should the Commonwealth decide you have information, you could be damned if you cooperate or damned if you don’t.
“But, Sam, don’t prosecutors understand this?”
All I can tell you is that we did…and this experienced Boston criminal lawyer as seen plenty of prosecutors in the Commonwealth who are at least as smart as he is…!
To view the article upon which this blog is based, please go to http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2011/08/19/roslindale_teen_mom_slain_after_a_grand_jury_date/?page=full