MIAMI — Fear. It’s what has a stranglehold on residents of neighborhoods hit by gun violence. Add to that a “don’t snitch” philosophy and those two together make an awful social cocktail in any community.
That’s what representatives of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office say they are up against when trying to solve violent crimes. And for the families wanting closure about a love one’s final moments, the toxic silence kills them too.
“It’s like a double murder. The dreams of those parents for their children die too,” said State Attorney spokesman Ed Griffith.
The State Attorney’s Office had a show of force Saturday at the Call A Pastor Pre-Father’s Day Walk to protest numerous unsolved murders in Miami-Dade County, staged in the parking lot of the Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in the Liberty City community.
Families wearing T-shirts with victims’ images, names, dates of birth and dates of death walked among the small group who responded to the Rev. Dr. Billy Strange Jr.’s call.
“They are still working on the case; this one is going to be solved,” Isiah Thomas said about the death of his stepson Zamari Ricardo Pierre-Louis. “The police called just last week. They couldn’t tell me anything because it’s under investigation – but they called.”
Zamari 16, a Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School student, was shot several times in his Miami Gardens neighborhood just before 8 p.m. Jan. 15. At the time, police had no suspects and no motive.
“Forty-five minutes after he left the house, we got the call,” Thomas said.
All the families of victims present had the same thing to say: Their loved ones were innocent bystanders of gun violence.
Frank Ledee, division chief of the Gang Unit of the State Attorney’s Office, said usually within 24 hours there is buzz in the neighborhood about who is responsible for a shooting. Then it can get complicated.
If a witness comes forward, during the discovery part of the trial preparation that witness’ name is handed over to the defense. Also, perpetrators sometimes know who witnesses their crimes and, sometimes with that knowledge alone, comes silence.
The State Attorney’s Office can offer protection but it is limited, they admit. “Witnesses get threats over social media, in person and through a third party,” Ledee said. Prosecutors can offer to watch witnesses’ home or, if necessary, relocate witnesses.
But most people do not want to be relocated and the process is very expensive, Ledee said. Florida’s Violent Crime and Drug Control Council allocates about $100,000 per year to the entire state to relocate witnesses – and that figure hasn’t changed over the last 12 years.
“Miami-Dade could use all that amount,” Ledee said. “I have had to move up to a group of 15 people. That’s a huge expense. We are moving people to places where they don’t have jobs. But people really don’t want to leave their community; it’s where they live.”
Even if a witness is relocated, the office cannot guarantee protection, Ledee said. People return to their neighborhoods, they make contact with others or they are found.
While all this doesn’t make becoming a state’s witness attractive, Ledee said it’s the only way they can get convictions. Still, witnesses renege and cases fall apart.
“Even if they said 10 times before ‘I saw so and so do it,’ if on the witness stand they don’t identify the shooter, there is no conviction,” Griffith said. Griffith and Ledee agree that trust in law enforcement needs to be established with the neighborhoods.
“We need to build trust on a one-on-one, case-by-case basis. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who steps up to help solve a crime, when I know what they are up against,” Ledee said.
Police presence at the walk on Saturday was almost negligible and the one officer who came was late. “We can’t go into the neighborhood without them,” said event organizer Vincent Jordan.
This was Call A Pastor’s second in a series of rallying cries about gun violence in Liberty City, Jordan said. “We won’t stop marching until these gang bangers understand that we won’t tolerate it,” Jordan said. “Life is valued. It’s not right to take people’s lives.”
David I. Muir/For South Florida Times
MARCHERS: Call A Pastor organizer Vincent Jordan, center, readies a small group to walk through the streets of Liberty City in protest of gun violence on Saturday.