A 55-year-old man operating an unauthorized cab in Baltimore witnessed a passenger's arrest, according to prosecutors, then turned down a bribe to give false testimony in the case. Months later, he was shot to death in front of the suburban home he shared with his elderly mother.
City and Baltimore County prosecutors revealed the details of the 2011 killing of Ronald Givens on Thursday as they announced the murder indictments of four men, three of whom were also charged with conspiracy, witness intimidation and obstruction of justice.
The case highlights a continuing problem in Baltimore — a crime culture that uses intimidation as a barrier between police and the community, police said.
"We've been working hard to break that culture, that 'Stop Snitching' culture, and these cases definitely make it harder," said Anthony Guglielmi, chief city police spokesman.
Givens was found shot to death in his front yard on Oct. 4, 2011, seven months after he had stopped to pick up one of the indicted men in his "hack," prosecutors said. He was pulled over with Derius Duncan in the car, and Duncan, who was on probation at the time, was arrested on gun and drug charges.
Duncan faced a lengthy prison term if found by a judge to have violated his probation, prosecutors said, and Givens was considered a key witness in that case. Duncan was accused of felony possession of a firearm and possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute, among other allegations. The charges are still pending.
Months later, behind bars at the Baltimore City Detention Center, Duncan began calling and writing to two other men — Keyon Beads and Clifford Butler Jr. — about Givens, prosecutors said. The men in turn shared the information with another man, David Johnson.
At first, Duncan wanted Beads, Butler and Johnson — now 30, 21 and 23, respectively — to bribe Givens to testify falsely in the case, prosecutors said.
However, "once it was clear that Givens was unwilling to give false testimony," prosecutors said, Duncan directed his three friends — with whom he'd grown up in Woodlawn — to kill Givens.
Both Gregg L. Bernstein, state's attorney for Baltimore City, and Scott D. Shellenberger, state's attorney for Baltimore County, praised the investigation that led them to the suspects.
"Anybody who does anything that tries to interfere with [the criminal justice] system needs to be dealt with harshly," Shellenberger said.
Neither prosecutor would discuss whether Givens had been offered protection before he was shot and left bleeding in front of his Lochearn home.
"It's really important that we turn our attention to achieving justice in court," said Mark Cheshire, a Bernstein spokesman. "Until that point, it's really inappropriate to discuss details."
A Baltimore County grand jury indicted all four men in the killing on Monday, and a Baltimore City grand jury handed up indictments last Friday against Duncan, Beads and Butler, charging them with conspiracy, witness intimidation and obstruction of justice.
"Attempting to bribe or kill a witness undermines the entire justice system. This brand of cowardice will never be tolerated, and we will work relentlessly to make sure justice is done," Bernstein said in a statement.
Givens' family could not be reached for comment.
Guglielmi said it is a "terrible tragedy" every time a witness is killed, and police work hard to prevent it from occurring. The Baltimore Police Department has a intelligence unit devoted to the issue of witness intimidation, he said.
Both local police departments and prosecutors have designated funds to protect witnesses, and witnesses can be relocated when warranted.
"The slightest threat to someone who might be a witness, who might be a victim, we take extremely seriously," he said.
For years, witnesses and others who have confronted crime in their neighborhoods have dealt with violence, and some have had their homes firebombed.
In 2007, the home of a Waverly woman who frequently called police about drug dealers on her street was firebombed. In 2005, community activist Edna McAbier, who fought drug dealing in her neighborhood, suffered a similar attack.
And in 2002, Angela and Carnell Dawson and their five children were killed when their East Baltimore home was firebombed. Family members had confronted area drug dealers. Darrell L. Brooks is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in the incident, which focused national attention on the issue of witness intimidation.
In another high-profile incident in 2009, a suspected teenage member of the Black Guerrilla Family gang wriggled out of his handcuffs in a Baltimore courtroom, according to witnesses and a video recording, and began beating a fellow suspected gang member who had agreed to testify about the pair's shooting of another teen.
Guglielmi emphasized that almost all police cases rely on "community intelligence" and only a very small number of witnesses end up harmed.
"It's the same battle of perception versus reality. These high-profile incidents create fear," he said. "But there are so many other crimes that we use community intelligence, nearly every one if you think about it."
A previous version of this story gave an incorrect first name for Ronald Givens.