Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland was recalling the daunting challenges he faced as a crime-busting federal prosecutor back in the day. But to contemporary Miami, his words sounded way too 2016.
“The hardest job we faced was persuading mothers and grandmothers that if they testified, we would be able to keep them safe and convict the gang members,” Garland said last week, standing alongside President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden.
Garland was describing the quandary he faced as a young prosecutor in 1989 when he went after the gangbangers “terrorizing” a forsaken Washington, D.C., neighborhood.
All these years later, our own police and prosecutors face the same brutal challenge trying to pacify the dismal reaches of today’s Miami-Dade County, where gun-thugs have killed at least 316 children and teens in the last decade — and where key witnesses, cowed by the prospect of retaliation, have too often refused to cooperate.
Witness intimidation has become a recurring subtext lately as the community ponders an epidemic of unsolved shootings in Overtown, Liberty City and Miami Gardens and other bullet-riddled communities in Miami-Dade. The Herald reported last fall that in the city of Miami alone, only 94 of the 646 shootings police investigated over the previous four years had been solved.
Except that investigators often know the identities of shooters in the so-called “unsolved” cases. Police have sought witnesses. It’s just that they’re too afraid to testify.
Just last fall, Miami-Dade prosecutors were forced to drop charges against one of the young men suspected of firing more than 100 shots into a Liberty City home they mistakenly thought belonged to a rival gang member. Both Miami-Dade corrections officer Ciara Lee, 24, and her 2-year-old son, Devin, asleep in bed, had been killed in the 2010 assault rifle barrage.
A key witness suddenly had stopped cooperating — the second time a murder witness had refused to testify against 24-year-old Demarcus Alexander. Frustrated prosecutors were forced to drop murder charges against Alexander for the second time.
When civic leaders rallied against gun violence last month at the Northwest Miami-Dade apartment complex where 6-year-old King Carter had been caught in crossfire and fatally shot, they were particularly concerned with witness intimidation. Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, among others, begged state lawmakers to pass pending legislation that would allow prosecutors to protect the identities of murder witnesses. Carvalho told lawmakers, “I think this measure would build confidence and protection to witnesses, who could very well help solve these crimes and reduce community violence that particularly plagues our kids.”
Miami’s sense of urgency didn’t much matter to the lawmakers in the state capitol. Sponsor Rep. Ed Narain of Tampa, another town struggling with gun violence, said his bill was caught up in a petty political feud between the Senate sponsor and a committee chair. It died in the Senate. “I’m still gritting my teeth,” ” Narain told me Wednesday.
Apparently gang warfare and gun violence and witness intimidation and dead kids were low priorities this year in Tallahassee. Might as well be 1989.