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Prosecutor Locks Up Young Witnesses


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

A 16-year-old boy died last month, a violent death in Easton, Pennsylvania. Accused of the crime are a 14-year-old boy and an older man, a convicted felon who belongs to a gang. Two teenagers witnessed the crime, and the local prosecutor has taken a highly unusual step. He's locked the teenagers in jail to protect them, and to insure they won't flee.

NPR's Libby Lewis reports, that what's happening in Easton, shows witness intimidation isn't just a big city problem.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

Easton, Pennsylvania looks like a place where not much happens. It doesn't look like a place that has just hired a detective to investigate criminal gangs full-time. But it is. Jay Jenkins is an assistant district attorney in this small city of 26,000 near Bethlehem. He says Easton's location, between Philadelphia and New York, is drawing newcomers to this old industrial spot, both good and bad.

(Soundbite of traffic)

LEWIS: We're standing in front of the house where Clarence C.W. Edwards lived and died. C.W. was sitting on the porch with a friend the night of February 7th when, police say, an old Dodge station wagon drove by. Qu'eed Batts, who's 14, and 22-year-old Vernon Bradley were in the car.

Mr. JAY JENKINS (Assistant District Attorney): They drove by. We believe that Mr. Batts, the 14-year-old, having been provided a mask and a gun, and instructions to shoot these men, got out of the car, and walked up on them, and shot them on the porch.

LEWIS: C.W. Edwards died. His friend survived. Jenkins said the 14-year-old did it to get ahead in the Bloods Gang. Defense lawyers declined to comment. Two teenagers were in the Dodge, too, a brother and a sister. She's 16. He's 15.

They watched from the car on the street here...

Mr. JENKINS: Right.

LEWIS: ...below the porch.

Mr. JENKINS: That's correct.

LEWIS: Jenkins says the teens didn't have anything to do with the crime. To him and his boss, North Hampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, this brother and sister hold the keys to justice. Other people know that, too.

Days after the shooting, the teens' mother told the judge she'd gotten threats aimed at her children. They won't come home, she told the judge. She said they're scared, because everyone knows where I live. She said her children weren't going to school, and they were staying in crack houses to avoid being found. With her consent, the judge ordered the teens be locked up for their safety.

The mother went with the police to find them. They found her daughter at the local public housing project with a busted lip and a swollen eye. She'd just been jumped by a group of kids. The mother said somebody had pulled a gun on her son. Her children are now in the county's jail for juveniles, held under Pennsylvania's material witness statute. The judge appointed each of them a lawyer.

Both of the lawyers agreed with the mother--the teens should be kept locked up. It's a provocative move, usually used for adults who have flouted court orders to testify. Jenkins knows it could backfire if the teens don't cooperate.

Mr. JENKINS: In this case, we kind of felt like there was no other choice. You know, we had to keep them safe. We had to keep them off the streets. And the mother didn't feel that she could effectively do that on her own. And we didn't feel that we could effectively get them, or assure their appearance at court hearings, unless, you know, they were someplace. And the only place we really had available to us was juvenile detention.

LEWIS: Ken Brown agrees with Jenkins. He's a city councilman in Easton who helped organize a march against violence downtown. Brown is thinking about the fact that C.W. Edwards was the third young, black man to be murdered in this area this year. Easton, he says, is coming under too much influence from drugs and gangs.

Mr. KEN BROWN (City Councilman): Well, that's three lives. It's reversed. We're in a reverse time in our city, where parents are burying their children. In reality, the child is suppose to bury their parents.

LEWIS: Philip Davis is a pastor of Greater Shiloh Baptist Church. He's worked with Easton's young people for more than a decade. Davis delivered the eulogy at C.W. Edwards' funeral. It was the first funeral in Easton secured by local and state police--armed, some undercover. Davis says he understands the need to protect the brother and sister.

Pastor PHILIP DAVIS (Shiloh Baptist Church): But the problem becomes, what happens after they testify? So, it's really serving more of the D.A.'s perspective than it is the needs of the young people. And I think we have, you know, more questions that should be asked, simply because, you know, once they testify, you release them now. You know, what happens to these young, they're even at more risk now, then they would be.

LEWIS: Jay Jenkins says he's thinking about that. But he says he's thinking, too, what happens if killers go free?

Libby Lewis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Libby Lewis
Libby Lewis is an award-winning reporter on the National Desk whose pieces on issues of law, society, criminal justice, the military and social policy can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day to Day, Weekend Edition Saturday, and other NPR shows.
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