Retired Cuyahoga County Judge Thomas Curran, sitting by assignment in the case of Youngstown killer Anthony Caulton, had some harsh words for the community last week because only two witnesses were willing to testify about the shooting death of Larry D, Jones.
That’s two out of several hundred people who were in the former South High School stadium on Aug. 19, 2006, when Caulton shot Jones. What made this murder even more dramatic compared with all the others that have taken place in the city is the event that drew all those people to the South Side field: A peewee football league game. In other words, lots of children around.
While Judge Curran’s outrage is understandable considering the circumstances surrounding the killing, it is misplaced. Condemning residents for not coming forward to tell what they saw is to ignore the reality that is Youngstown: Witnesses tend to have abbreviated life spans.
Just ask Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains, a former Youngstown police officer, and he’ll tell you about the nationally publicized case in which three witnesses to a 2005 drive-by shooting were killed during the 22 months it took to bring the shooter to trial.
The murder charge against the defendant was reduced to voluntary manslaughter in a plea agreement, and charges of repeat violent offender and felon in possession of a firearm were dismissed.
Indeed, this March, Judge Curran presided over a case in which the sole witness to a killing suddenly wasn’t sure about what occurred.
In 2007, William “Mike” Burr was killed as he was preparing to testify in the trial of two men charged with killing his brother, Anthony Perez. Burr was the only witness.
Youngstown residents are well aware that agreeing to testify in murder trials is tantamount to signing your own death warrant.
Rather than preaching to the community — “Its a sad commentary that those present at a lawful and beneficial event would not cooperate with police officials at the scene” — Judge Curran should use his position to help local law enforcement obtain a tool in crime-fighting that has proved extremely effective on the federal level: Witness protection.
Two years ago, in the midst of high profile cases collapsing because of a lack of witnesses, Gains said he wished Mahoning County had a witness protection program. But, he conceded that was wishful thinking because county government does not have the money.
He suggested that action by the Ohio General Assembly to finance such a program could make it happen. Unfortunately, there was no action in Columbus — just as there wasn’t any in 1996 when then state Rep. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown, had discussed sponsoring legislation authorizing counties to establish witness protection programs and have the state fund them.
Now, years later, it is clear that criminals will have the upper hand in cities like Youngstown until they know that witnesses won’t be afraid to step forward and tell what they saw and know.
The only way that will happen is if residents are confident that neither they nor those close to them will be in harm’s way.
Judge Curran, who is quite familiar with the Mahoning Valley, should join forces with the county prosecutor and law enforcement to push for a federally funded witness protection program.
About $4 billion from the $700 billion-plus American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has been earmarked for law enforcement-related programs. Perhaps some of that money could be used to establish a witness protection program in this area. On the other hand, perhaps the federal government would extend its program to Mahoning County.
Scolding the community for not getting involved is unfair. Living in high-crime areas of the city where the gangbangers own the streets makes self-preservation the highest priority.
Just ask the families of the witnesses who were gunned down in cold blood.
Yes, Anthony Caulton is going away for 18 years to life for killing Larry Jones, and the two witnesses who stepped forward are being hailed for their courage and their sense of community. Perhaps they will inspire others — but don’t hold your breath.