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A Conspiracy Of Silence

One of the keys to our criminal justice system is the testimony of witnesses — testimony given freely without fear of retribution. As CBS News correspondent Armen Keteyian reports, the system is breaking down in some of America's biggest cities. Criminals are literally getting away with murder because witnesses are afraid to testify.

A CBS News investigation reveals that witness intimidation affects or derails up to 30 percent of all cases involving shootings in major U.S. cities including Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. In homicide cases, that number jumps to 90 percent, with Baltimore topping the list.

"We call it a conspiracy of silence and I consider Baltimore to be the epicenter of witness intimidation in the country," says Patricia Jessamy, Baltimore City State's Attorney.

"A guy came out of an alley and put a gun to my head, told me I wasn't going to make it, to live to go to court," says one witness Mia, who asked that her identity be concealed.

Mia put her life on the line when she agreed to testify in a shooting case in Baltimore — but in urban America these days, she's the very rare exception. Simply put, the United States is seeing an epidemic of witness intimidation.

In Baltimore, like so many cities, drug dealers and gang leaders use any means necessary to keep people from talking to the police.

Leon Parnell runs a local crisis center. He says in his neighborhood, snitches are often the target of fire bombings, shootings and beatings.

Three years ago on the same inner-city streets, 10-year-old Tashiera Peterson saw her father gunned down in a disagreement over a $10 drug deal.

She recounted the murder in this tape recorded statement to police.

"The man pulled out his gun and shot him. Shot my father two times in the head and the chest," she says, recounting the murder in a taped police statement.

Defendant DeAndre Whitehead, faced with watching Tashiera repeat that damning statement on the witness stand made a cold-blooded decision. Transcripts of a jailhouse recording, obtained exclusively by CBS News, reveal Whitehead's attempt to hire his cellmate, a guy named James, to kill both the child and her mother for a few hundred dollars.
Whitehead: Do you know what she looks like?

James: Alright, alright, want me to hit the mother?

Whitehead: You catch up with the little girl, both of them get hit.

James: Pop her?

Whitehead: Pop her.

The hit was never carried out, and Tashiera did testify in court. But Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Wanda Heard says many other witnesses can't stand up to the intimidation.

"When I see witnesses afraid to come to court, and run from law enforcement, avoiding service so they don't have to come to court...then I would say it's corrupting citizens, and it's corrupting justice in Baltimore City."

In Baltimore, it has come to this: a special police unit whose only job is to hunt down potential witnesses — some 1,400 to date — armed with a prosecutor's promise of protection.

Protection for people like Mia, who put her life on the line to testify against a defendant in a shootout on her street. But after three attempts on her life, and several months in a safe house, she received the news it was all for naught. The verdict came back two days ago — not guilty on all counts.

"You've got to be kidding me, this cannot be happening," she cried stunned and terrified. "My family still lives down there…this boy is going to go back down around the neighborhood and terrorize, ya'll don't understand. You just don't get it."

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