In the same cell -- and on opposite sides of murder case

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 22, 2008 - 2:42 PM

A witness in a trial over two slayings at a crack house ended up with the defendant and was beaten before testifying Friday.

With his eyes black and swollen from a jailhouse beating, Steven Hawkins took the stand Friday to testify against the man he says attacked him for fingering him in a murder.

Hawkins told a Hennepin County District Court jury that Val Diggins had approached him in a holding cell earlier this week and said, "Do you know who I am?" He said he doesn't remember anything else until he was loaded on a gurney and taken to Hennepin County Medical Center.

Diggins, 51, is accused of murdering two crack dealers in north Minneapolis on Halloween. Hawkins, 40, is one of the witnesses for the prosecution.

Jurors were told that the two were mistakenly placed together Tuesday, two of 20 men in the "bullpen," the county's holding cell for inmates on their way to court.

Prosecutors say Diggins smashed Hawkins' head into a bench, breaking bones in his face. Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Peter Orput said a deputy heard Diggins say, "That will teach him to snitch on me."

Orput and Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Michael Burns said they had gone to the jail last Saturday to talk to Hawkins and told the jailers of the "strong necessity" for keeping the two apart.

They said they assured Hawkins he would be kept separate.

But the two men both had scheduled appearances in court early Tuesday and somebody made a mistake, Orput said.

"We are going to pursue charges" regardless of the outcome of the murder case, Orput said. Assault and witness-tampering charges are possibilities, he said.

A spokeswoman for Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said no one from his office was available to comment on the beating late Friday afternoon.

In court Friday, Diggins wore a white dress shirt and tie. He sat next to his counsel, Rick Trachy, often reviewing documents or watching the witnesses. Trachy said there "was no excuse" for the beating. But he said Diggins can't be convicted of murder just because he committed another crime.

"He looks like a tough guy, but even tough guys get scared in front of a jury," Trachy said.

In his opening statement Trachy argued that Diggins is innocent and another, unknown man killed Charles (Chuckie) Woods-Wilson and Ira Lee Brown Jr.

"Any time you have the intersection of drugs and police, things get murky very fast," Trachy said.

Hawkins testified that he had bought crack from Diggins early in the evening of Oct. 30. He heard another unidentified man offer Diggins money and drugs to "take care of two people." Hawkins said he saw Diggins, whom he knew as "Mo," on the street later that night, threatening Woods-Wilson.

Woods-Wilson, 20, and Brown, 21, were killed early Halloween morning at 916 21st Av. N., just down the block from where Hawkins said he bought crack from Diggins.

Hawkins testified that he was on his way to jail on a misdemeanor charge on Halloween when the shootings came up. He was taken to talk to homicide Sgts. Rick Zimmerman and Charlie Adams. He picked Diggins out of a photo lineup. Although he didn't know his name, he knew where Diggins lived and took the detectives to the house.

Prosecutors say Diggins shot Woods-Wilson and Brown at the crack house but let three others escape. All three provided harrowing accounts of the shootings and identified Diggins as the killer.

Latisha Esters said she was asleep on the couch, but woke up when Kirsten (Kiki) Childs kicked her feet and told her to hand over her money. Diggins was pointing a gun at them.

Childs, 17, and Andre Atlas, 20, said they repeatedly heard Diggins say, "It's a contract. It's got nothing to do with you."

Esters said she saw Diggins shoot Woods-Wilson point blank in the head and say, "You should never have [expletive] with a [expletive] like me."

Diggins paced the living room, repeating those words until he heard Brown coming down the stairs, just out of the shower, Esters said. Brown rushed to try to get the gun, Esters added, and Diggins shot him twice.

Childs said she tried to comfort her boyfriend. "I crawled on the floor by Ira because he was choking on his blood, he was gurgling."

Esters said she ran up to the roof and called 911. A recording of the call was played in court with a distraught Esters repeatedly imploring, "Please come. Please come. Hurry up."

All three say the attacker wore workman-type pale blue striped coveralls -- the same outfit Zimmerman and Adams found Diggins wearing hours later.

As Esters responded to questions from Burns, she often looked directly at Diggins.

At one point she said, "It don't matter how long you look at me. It really don't."

District Judge Tony Leung told the jury to disregard her comment.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

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