PITTSBURGH—It was not the first time prosecutor Lisa Pellegrini had been enraged by the sight of the T-shirt with the traffic-sign message: STOP SNITCHING. But this guy was about to wear one into court, with matching baseball cap.
Worse, he was a witness—her witness—and the intended victim in an attempted murder case that had brought him, her and the defendants to court that day last fall.
This was Rayco “War” Saunders—ex-con, pro boxer and walking billboard for a street movement that has sparked a coast-to-coast beef involving everyone from professors to rappers.
Pellegrini, thinking “witness intimidation,” told Saunders to lose the hat and reverse the shirt. Saunders, crying “First Amendment,” refused. He left the courthouse, shirt in place. Case dismissed. “In almost every one of my homicides, this happens: ‘I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’,” the prosecutor says. “There is that attitude, ‘Don’t be a snitch.’ And it’s condoned by the community.”
Omerta, the Mafia’s blood oath of silence, has been broken by turncoat after turncoat. But the call to stop snitching—on other folks in the ‘hood—is getting louder.
Is it an attempt by drug dealers and gangsters to intimidate witnesses?
Is it a legitimate protest against law enforcers’ over-reliance on self-serving criminal informers?
Or is it bigger than that?
Take the case of Busta Rhymes.
The hip-hop star has refused to cooperate with police investigating the slaying of his bodyguard Feb. 5 outside a Brooklyn studio where Rhymes was recording a video with performers such as Missy Elliott and Mary J. Blige. Police say that although Rhymes and as many as 50 others may have seen the shooting, no one came forward—an echo of the silence that followed the unsolved murders of rappers Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G. and Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay.
It’s the code of the street: To be a credible rapper, you have to know when to shut up.
Whatever its intent, the Stop Snitching movement has galvanized officials already apoplectic about witness reluctance and witness intimidation.
States and localities spend a fraction of what the federal government devotes to witness protection, although this month Pennsylvania restored $1 million for that purpose. The move came as more than a half-dozen witnesses recanted earlier testimony in the trial of men accused in the Philadelphia street shooting death of a third-grade boy.
“If the word ‘snitch’ comes out of someone’s mouth, I go insane,” says Pellegrini, the Pittsburgh prosecutor. “When young men and women see rappers refuse (to cooperate), they think it’s cool. How do we tell them, ‘we’ll support you,’ when they see that?”
Especially, she says, when the slogan is blatantly used to intimidate witnesses. Last year, supporters of an accused drug dealer on trial in Pittsburgh federal court wore T-shirts around town bearing witnesses’ photos and the inscription “Stop Snitching.” U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan says one, Garry Smith, had a $100,000 price on his head.
“Everybody in law enforcement is beside themselves,” says Kennedy of John Jay College. “They can’t investigate cases. They can’t prosecute cases. The clearance rate for some serious crimes is tanking.”
Stop Snitching T-shirts have been banned from a number of courthouses. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, whose city recorded the most homicides in a decade last year, threatened to send police into stores to pull them off the shelves.