It's become a familiar story in the inner city neighborhoods of Boston. Murders go unsolved and criminal cases fail because witnesses are intimidated, people are afraid to come forward and jurors can be skeptical of police and prosecutors. Sometimes the murders involve bystanders gunned down because of gang feuds they have nothing to do with.
Finding the perpetrators is hard enough. But the prosecution can be even more challenging. One case in point is Cedirick Steele. In the three years since he was murdered, there have been three trials.
In the first row of courtroom 806 in Suffolk Superior Court sits the mother of Cedirick Steele. She's hearing the account of her son's savage execution for the third time. Her hope for justice rests on the shoulders of a 21-year-old woman on the witness stand, LaToya Thomas Dickson. Thomas Dickson is the key witness against the two defendants. But she's also an example of why Suffolk County has trouble prosecuting defendants in cases of black-on-black violence.
"What was the reason you told the lie in March of 2010?"
That was the question from Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Josh Wall. Why did you lie? And it is the key question. Because in either the first trial or the second, Thomas Dickson was surely lying.
At the first trial, she testified she and the two defendants were at the scene of the murder in Roxbury in 2007. But at the second trial, she testified she and the defendants weren't there at all, but far away in the town of Webster.
"And you said that in front a jury," Wall said.
"Yes," Thomas Dickson said.
"And was that true or false?"
"That was a lie."
A lie. So, here in the third trial, Thomas Dickson was stating she'd told the truth in the first trial, but lied at the second. But why had she lied? Out of fear of her boyfriend, she said. He's one of the defendants.
"I also received a phone call saying that if I don't change story they were going to kill my mother and they were also sitting outside my house, where I was moved to," Thomas Dickson said.
They threatened to kill her mother, and she said, in letters and calls from jail, her boyfriend threatened her, too.
"And what threat does he make to you if you don't keep your mouth closed?"
"That he'll (expletive) me up."
"What does that mean to you?"
"That means he's going to (expletive) me up?"
"And what does that mean?"
"Objection. I move to strike."
"Overruled," the judge said.
Thomas Dickson's new commitment to telling the truth on the stand, if in fact she's telling the truth, has to do with a tactic employed by the prosecution after the last trial, when they indicted her for perjury. Jailed on $500,000 bail, she plead guilty just last week.
"And why did you plead guilty to your perjury charge?"
"Because I was guilty," Thomas Dickson said.
But she won't be sentenced until after this trial. Which prompted this from defense attorney Barry Wilson:
"The same people that indicted you are the same people who make a recommendation to the judge when you get sentenced, right?" he asked Thomas Dickson.
"Yes," she replied.
And since the prosecution could recommend a sentence of up to life in prison, Wilson suggested she say anything now to get a better deal; she was singing for her supper.
Practically lost in the details and the transcripts from grand juries and previous trials was Steele, the son of the mother sitting in the first row.
Steele was a college honors student unconnected to the defendants or to gangs. The only role he played in his own murder was to be on the street outside his car. Wednesday, Thomas Dickson testified that on the day Steele was murdered she was riding with her boyfriend and the alleged shooter, when they went in search of somebody, anybody to shoot in the neighborhood of a rival gang.
"How many shots did you think he fired at this innocent young man," Wall asked.
"One, two, three. Eight," Thomas Dickson said.
Three years and three trials later, the prosecution is still struggling to make its case.
By the end of Wednesday, even with the testimony about the threats to her and her family, Thomas Dickson had become a less sympathetic figure. She was alternately combative and sullen with defense attorneys, seemingly unrepentant for ever lying, and she added testimony never heard in the first or second trials.
"You told them you never go in this area."
"Yeah, and I lied..." Thomas Dickson said.
Over and over again, Thomas Dickson tossed off questions from the defense attorneys about the shower of lies in her previous testimony:
"Yeah and I lied about that, too."
"You lied. It's all a lie. Is that what you're saying?"
Even with her with her open admission to lying at the last trial — her guilty plea to perjury just last week — and her new cooperation with the prosecution, Thomas Dickson personifies the acute problem for Suffolk County prosecutors.
Getting witnesses both to testify and to testify truthfully may be challenging. But the problem of undoing the lies, like undoing the intimidation by gang members, seems overwhelming.
This program aired on November 18, 2010.