For months, prosecutors fought to hide Freddy Scott’s identity as a witness in the murder trial of a man accused of killing Minneapolis grandmother Birdell Beeks. They even obtained a protective order barring the courts from divulging the witness’ name to the defense.
Then, days before he was scheduled to testify, his name spread on social media — followed by threats of violence.
Police and prosecutors had good reason to worry.
“While not specifically listed in the public complaint, the signing judge should know that the other witness referred to in the ‘open investigation’ was murdered,” a Minneapolis police detective wrote in a filing this month.
The murder of one witness and the threats against Scott underscore the difficulties police and prosecutors have getting witnesses to come forward — particularly in cases involving gangs or domestic violence — and then shielding them from harm on their way to the witness stand.
Eyewitness testimony is often crucial in securing convictions in cases with little physical or forensic evidence. Police officials say they take seriously the issue of protecting those who report valuable information about crimes.
“This includes offers of support, direction, assistance, or protection for individuals at risk in these difficult situations,” police spokesman Scott Seroka said in a statement.
But getting people to cooperate isn’t easy. Some won’t talk out of fear of retribution or refusal to betray the street code that demands silence. Others have little confidence in the criminal justice system’s ability or resolve to protect them.
Prosecutors said that witness intimidation isn’t as much of a problem in Minneapolis as it is in other cities. Still, they say, it does arise in dozens of cases a year.
“Social media gives the perpetrator more of an opportunity to invoke fear, trepidation or anxiety,” said deputy Hennepin County Attorney Lolita Ulloa.
The threats can take many forms, said V.J. Smith, president of MAD DADS, a national nonprofit that works to end violence. “It can be as simple as breaking out your car windows or as complicated as jumping on somebody that’s near and dear to you, or shooting somebody that you care about,” said Smith, who years ago led a movement to root out the “no snitching” culture that contributed to many killings going unsolved.
“If they harass you, you can’t afford to move, and you can’t afford a lawyer, so what do you do? You suffer.”
The danger is especially great in the city because witnesses often live in the same neighborhood or socialize in the same places as the people against whom they’re testifying, he said.
‘I’m wiping him’
Days before taking the stand in defendant Joshua Ezeka’s murder trial in the Beeks shooting, Scott’s name began popping up on social media as a police cooperator. Then came the threats of physical violence.
In exchange for a lighter sentence, he agreed to testify against his co-defendant Ezeka, who was eventually convicted of shooting Beeks while aiming at a rival gang member who’d ventured into his territory.
But during the week of the trial, Ezeka and others were overheard discussing Scott’s statements — referring to him by his nickname “ ‘Lil Zoe” and “shorty” — to the police on a series of recorded jailhouse phone calls, prosecutors say. “[I]t’s a green light if I catch shorty in any prison, I’m wiping him,” one of the men said, according to court filings.
Prosecutors said that several of the callers spoke of harming Scott because he planned to testify against Ezeka. Others threatened to spit on Scott when he showed up in court.
One of the men, Denzel Fields, 23, posted a copy of a police report naming Scott as a state’s witness on his Facebook page. Fields, who is Ezeka’s cousin, was later charged with witness tampering.
Prosecutors asked for a $500,000 bond for Fields, an unusually high amount for such a case, because of the “overall gravity of the situation,” according to a charging document.
Their concerns were rooted in the June slaying of a 22-year-old man in the Lyndale neighborhood of south Minneapolis. A source with knowledge of the Beeks investigation said the man fed detectives information that eventually led to the arrest of Ezeka, whom police had long suspected of being involved. The slain man had been with Ezeka moments before he killed Beeks in May 2016 but initially refused to cooperate with police, the source said. He later changed his mind. The Star Tribune is not naming him because he has not yet been publicly identified as a witness.
At the time of the witness’ killing, police offered no motive for the attack, which attracted only brief media coverage. But the department source said that authorities are investigating whether the slaying was payback for agreeing to help police in the then-ongoing investigation. So far no one has been charged with his death.
A jury found Ezeka guilty of multiple counts including murder in Beeks’ death. He is scheduled for sentencing Monday.
Sometimes the mere perception of being associated with the police is enough to provoke the streets’ wrath.
Minneapolis police average about 10 instances of witness intimidation a year, department statistics show. But those numbers can be low, since oftentimes threats go unreported.
The U.S. marshal’s Service offers security through its witness protection program, including relocating victims or witnesses to enhance their safety. Since the program’s founding in 1971, it has relocated more than 8,600 witnesses and 9,900 of their family members, mostly in government cases against organized crime, drug trafficking, terrorism and other major criminal enterprises.
But it’s a different story on the local level, where authorities are lucky to scrounge up enough money to pay for meals, hotels or protected transportation to and from court.
Florida lawmakers last year signed into law a provision that shields the identity of murder witnesses in public records for two years after the crime. And Indianapolis’ police chief in December spoke out in favor of a bipartisan bill that would send $300,000 to the city’s Office of Public Health and Safety to help fund the creation of a witness protection program.
In the past, prosecutors worked with police to offer protection to informants who had crucial information on major felony cases.
“I’m not sure what exists,” said Minneapolis Council Member Linea Palmisano, who sits on the Public Safety Committee. “Is this a tool that is lacking somehow in our toolbox of government?”
She pointed to the city’s recently passed U-Visa program — a form of witness protection afforded to immigrant victims and witnesses of certain types of crimes who cooperate with police investigations — as a step in the right direction.
It’s unclear how much, if any, money has been spent to protect witnesses in Beeks’ death, which brought renewed attention to the gun violence plaguing parts of the city.
Not a ‘snitch’
The suggestion that Scott “snitched” is inaccurate, according to his attorney, Murad Mohammad. In testifying, his client was only verifying what police already knew after Ezeka confessed to the shooting, he said. But he disagrees with the practice of granting witnesses anonymity, which makes it nearly impossible for the defense to prepare an adequate case, according to Mohammad, and would undermine the basic constitutional right to a fair trial.
Still, he says that all threats of violence should be taken seriously.
“When you have gang members who are willing to shoot somebody and kill them simply for driving down the wrong street, what do you think they would do to somebody who testified against them, or in a case where somebody snitched?” Mohammad said.