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Intimidation of witnesses and fear of testifying in criminal cases have made the prosecution of gang-related crime notoriously difficult. A murder case being tried for the third time in Suffolk Superior Court this week has prosecutors using a tough new strategy.
Latoya Thomas-Dickson is 21-years-old and looks like the girl next door. But she's had a problem telling the truth. She's been the commonwealth's star witness in the trial, the re-trial and now the re-re-trial of two men charged with murder.
At first she testified she was with the defendants at the scene of the murder of 18-year-old Cedirick Steele in Roxbury in 2007. Then, in the middle of the second trial, she said she wasn't there at all.
The jury deadlocked in the first trial, and then again in the second. And now as the prosecution heads into the third trial, Thomas-Dickson's problem telling the truth has become even more acute. In fact, the government is so intent on convicting the two alleged gang members that it has charged its own key witness with perjury.
To make a point, the prosecution asked that Thomas-Dickson be held on $1 million bail. So now, on the eve of the third trial, she's in jail and came to court in shackles Tuesday.
While up on the eighth floor of Suffolk Superior Court, a jury was being chosen for that third murder trial. Down on the seventh floor, prosecutor Mark Lee was outlining a separate case against its star witness, Thomas-Dickson.
"She saw Mr. Carter leave the vehicle, after which she heard gunshots. And soon after the gunshots, Mr. Carter returned to the car, where he attempted to hand her a gun."Prosecutor Mark Lee
Alleged members of the Massachusetts Avenue Hornets, the two defendants, Daniel Pinkney and Antwan Carter, were looking for members of a rival gang, Thomas-Dickson had testified. Initially, she'd said was in the front seat with Pinkney, her former boyfriend, when Carter got out of the backseat with a silver handgun.
"She saw Mr. Carter leave the vehicle, after which she heard gunshots. And soon after the gunshots, Mr. Carter returned to the car, where he attempted to hand her a gun," the prosecutor said.
Back at the corner, though she said she didn't see him, lay Steele, an honors student with no gang connections and seven bullet wounds.
Such was Thomas-Dickson's testimony until halfway through the last trial that was in March. But then her behavior changed completely. She fled three times from police. And on the stand, she told defense attorneys a different story altogether.
"Ms. Thomas-Dickson testified under oath that on that day, that she was not in Boston, but she was in Webster, Mass., at the time when Mr. Steele was killed," Lee said.
So what would make Thomas-Dickson change her story? The prosecution said it was clear: they had taped phone calls made by the alleged shooter, Carter, from jail in 2007. They were chilling.
"If she rats, I could be gone forever," Carter said to a friend. "You (expletive) got to take care of that (expletive)."
In another call, "she got to be. Bro, she got to be history."
Carter even wrote a letter telling a friend, "I need you to bust dat (expletive)."
"It's scary, it's scary. And it's real fear. So you can't take that lightly, and I think everyone in that community is subject to that fear," said Lee.
Raffi Yessayan, who is now a defense attorney, once worked as a Suffolk County prosecutor and headed the anti-gang unit. He said the prosecution is now making an aggressive statement by taking its star witness to court before putting her back on the stand as its witness.
"I mean I've never seen that done. It was something that we definitely thought of doing when I was in the DA's office, but there's obvious concerns with that," Yessayan said. "It's a pretty interesting strategy and it will be interesting to see how it plays out."
"Ms. Thomas-Dickson, did you hear those facts?" a Suffolk Superior Court judge asked.
"Yes ma'am," Thomas-Dickson replied.
"And do you understand that pleading guilty here today, you're pleading to the truth of those facts?"
Questioned by a judge at Suffolk Superior Court Tuesday, Thomas-Dickson admitted that her last testimony about never being at the murder scene in Roxbury with the defendants was false.
"So, you're pleading guilty here and admitting that you gave that false testimony because you are guilty and did give that false testimony, is that correct?" the judge asked.
"Yes ma'am," Thomas-Dickson said.
So now, the prosecution has Thomas-Dickson where they want her: in jail, so she can't run away. And awaiting sentencing, which could even mean life in prison for perjury, which won't take place until after she testifies in the murder case. Whether the jurors believe a now admitted perjurer is telling the truth may decide whether there will be a third deadlock.
This program aired on November 10, 2010.
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