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‘No-snitch culture’ impedes criminal justice system

‘No-snitch culture’ impedes criminal justice system

‘No-snitch culture’ impedes criminal justice system

People who witness violent crimes but choose not to cooperate with police and prosecutors are contributing to what Roanoke law enforcement professionals call ‘no-snitch culture.’

It’s a tight-lipped, defiant and paranoid attitude that keeps criminals on the street and suspects in jail. Witnesses who won’t talk or show up to testify in court impede the legal process.

“The vast majority of people who are affected by a criminal act are cooperative and do come to court and do assist in the prosecution,” said longtime Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell. But he has noticed “more instances in the last five to seven years of people just, for whatever reason, not being willing to come to court and testify.”







Don Caldwell 21st (Mug)

Caldwell


“We have always had issues with witness cooperation, and it’s not just shootings,” Roanoke police Lt. Eric Thiel said. “That’s certainly something that we see across the state and nationwide.”

An ongoing local case illustrates the issue.

Kara Lee Wells, 41, of Roanoke witnessed a shooting in October 2021. She has been regularly summoned to testify in Roanoke Circuit Court on the matter

But Wells has failed to appear on trial dates and has eluded law enforcement since November, keeping Nashawn Devion Smith, 18, of Roanoke behind bars as he awaits trial on charges related to the shooting that Wells saw.

A warrant has been issued to arrest Wells so that she can be jailed until Smith’s trial. Thiel, a member of the Roanoke Police Department’s criminal investigations bureau, said it’s the department’s “prerogative” and “job” to bring her in.







Nashawn Devion Smith

Smith




But if a fugitive witness has the right resources and connections, they can be hard to catch.

“If someone’s got a passport and has some extra money around, you can get a plane ticket and be halfway across the world before we even know,” Thiel said. “I’ve worked cases where we were going forward with indictments, and they fled to Belize.”

The lieutenant said a fugitive on the run “might have family in other major cities that are willing to let them lay low and hide out in a spare bedroom.”

People who witness crimes but opt not to cooperate with police or attorneys have “a whole gambit of different possibilities and reasons” for making that choice, Thiel said.

Most commonly in Roanoke, Thiel said, witnesses who don’t want to talk have been intimidated or threatened, which creates fear — and additional work for police investigators.

“That’s really hard for us to combat,” Thiel said. “We’re relying upon that person to inform us of how they’re being intimidated, provide us the evidence of how that happens, and to be a cooperating witness going forward on the witness intimidation case, as well. It’s a double whammy, so to speak.”

“Any type of cooperation with police, any type of statements [to] the police, any type of showing up for court or testifying, you’re considered a snitch and you lose street credibility,” Thiel continued. “If someone is in a gang or is part of the gang lifestyle, that can have an effect on your actual personal safety.”

That same no-snitch culture extends to people who are victims of violent crimes.

“We have had any number of shootings or assaults where they’re at the hospital and they curse us out,” Thiel said of crime victims. “They’ll pound sand, and they’re sitting there with bullet holes in them. That is probably related to that type of subculture, the no snitching, and they’re not going to cooperate with police.”

But without a victim’s cooperation, law enforcement and legal authorities often lack sufficient evidence to prosecute a case, much less obtain a guilty or innocent verdict.

“I’m aware of a few particular cases that happened in the right time and place that it was captured on surveillance video,” Thiel said. “That gives us a little bit more leeway for the commonwealth’s attorney. But by and large, if it is a victim crime, and someone is a victim of that crime, for us to have a successful criminal prosecution, most of the time you have to have cooperation from that person. It’s the way our criminal justice system is set up.”

Thiel said the Roanoke Police Department does not “have an accurate way of tracking those cases that are inactivated” due to a victim’s or witness’ lack of cooperation. But he could say that less than half of the city’s shooting and homicide investigations end that way.

“Those are the minority of the cases,” he said.

“It is a problem, but it’s still the exception rather than the rule,” Caldwell agreed.

The commonwealth’s attorney said he thinks “there is a segment of our community that does not look to the traditional criminal justice system to right their wrongs. He understands from “feedback from the police” that some cases are closed on the street, when suspects offer victims money in exchange for zipped lips.

“I do think that a lot of cases are resolved civilly when we have a lack of cooperation,” Caldwell said. “A defendant’s family comes to [the victim] and says, ‘If we pay you X amount of dollars, will you just forget this?’ ”

“They won’t tell us that that’s going on,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Joshua Dietz, who is prosecuting Smith’s case. “But behind the scenes, money changes hands.”







Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Joshua Dietz (copy)

Dietz




Thiel said that when witnesses don’t cooperate with police investigations, criminals remain on the street.

Wells’ elusive maneuvers since November have made it difficult for Dietz to bring Smith’s case — which dates from Oct. 30, 2021 — to trial.

A shooting that night at a convenience store on Eighth Street Northwest injured Tevin Kentrell Kahan, now 30, of North Carolina.

Kahan and Wells, who Dietz said was the victim’s girlfriend at the time, told police what they experienced that evening, and officers apprehended 18-year-old Abdul-Aziz Valadez Yasin.







Adul-Aziz Valadez Yasin

Yasin




Yasin, whose first name also appears as “Abul-Aziz” in court records, was arrested Nov. 2, 2021, and charged with malicious wounding and grand larceny of a firearm. Police said at the time that no additional suspects were being sought.

Yasin was indicted in January 2022 on three charges: the original malicious wounding and firearm larceny, plus using a firearm in the commission of a malicious wounding.

But as the commonwealth’s attorney office reviewed surveillance footage from the convenience store, prosecutors discovered that Yasin hadn’t fired the shot.

“The original story that [Kahan] told was that Yasin had stolen his firearm from his waistband,” Dietz said in a recent interview. “[Kahan] thought that Yasin had shot him, because he had seen the gun in his hand. He thought he’d been shot with his own gun.”

“But when you watch the video, that’s not what happened,” Dietz continued. “But you can see how the witness would think that would happen, because it all happened really fast.”

In May, Yasin’s case was resolved through a plea agreement. The malicious wounding charge was amended to assault and battery, to which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 months of incarceration. He also pleaded guilty to firearm larceny and was sentenced to another six months. The firearm use charge was not prosecuted.

“In the end, I feel like this is a great case where justice was served,” Caldwell said. “Had that video not been there, truly an innocent man might have been convicted.”

That same month, based on evidence presented in surveillance video, Smith was arrested in connection with the Eighth Street shooting. Dietz said the new suspect was released from police custody on bond.

But a month later, Smith was caught fleeing the scene of a hit-and-run crash after eluding police through southeast Roanoke.

Dietz said that around 2 a.m. June 27, a Roanoke police officer was on patrol when he spotted a car traveling without its headlights on. The officer turned on his blue lights and began to follow the vehicle, which took a left turn, and then ran through several stop signs.

At the intersection of Eighth Street and Tazewell Avenue Southeast, Dietz continued, the eluding vehicle struck another vehicle “and then veered into the store” — the Ali Food Mart.

“There were a number of people on the sidewalk, and [the driver] ended up striking a woman that was standing on the curb,” Dietz said. “She got hit and got thrown back into the wall, and the vehicle hit the column and knocked the column out of place.”

The four occupants of the eluding vehicle got out and ran, Dietz continued. The police officer that had followed the vehicle to the crash scene chased the driver, apprehended him and identified him as Smith.

Smith was indicted on felony eluding and hit-and-run charges, to which he pleaded guilty in December. His sentencing hearing in that case is scheduled for March 15.

A week after his June 27 arrest, Smith was indicted on three charges connected to the Eighth Street shooting: malicious wounding, using a firearm in the commission of a felony, and possessing a firearm under the age of 18.

On Oct. 11, Smith was scheduled for a jury trial. But Wells, a key witness who was subpoenaed to testify that day, did not show up. A warrant for her arrest was issued on Oct. 20.

Roanoke police officers arrested Wells on Nov. 2, charging her with failing to appear in court. She was held without bond for one night in the city jail.

On Nov. 3, Wells appeared before Roanoke Circuit Judge Christopher Clemens, and she agreed to return to court for Smith’s next trial date on Nov. 15. She was released from jail Nov. 3 at 6:36 p.m. on a $1,000 unsecured bond.

Dietz said that he and Well’s attorney met with her a couple of days before the Nov. 15 trial date.

“She said she would come to the second trial date. She understood what the seriousness of the situation was. She knew what her obligations were. We were fully expecting her to show up the second time,” Dietz said. “But the second trial date rolled around and she didn’t come.”

Another capias for Wells’ arrest was issued on Nov. 17, when court documents indicate that her bond was revoked.

When Smith appeared in court Nov. 30, the warrant for Wells’ arrest was “still outstanding,” Dietz said. Due to her absence, Clemens granted a nolle prosequi motion from Dietz, which paused the case while reserving the right to renew it.

Prosecution did pause, but only for a few days. On Dec. 5, Smith was directly indicted again for the October 2021 shooting, this time on just two charges: malicious wounding and use of a firearm in commission of a felony.

Dietz explained that the decision to reindict Smith was based on the belief that Wells “would not be able to avoid arrest for very long.”

“In the interest of justice, it was our idea that we would go ahead and have a new indictment in place so that when she was arrested, we would know what trial date we would have,” Dietz said. “She was likely going to be held until the trial date, so we didn’t want to hold her any longer than we needed to.”

But on the new trial date, Feb. 1, Wells was still nowhere to be found, so Dietz made a new nolle prosequi motion. But Smith’s lawyer, Patrick Kenney, asked for the charges to be dismissed outright.

“There’s no end in sight,” Kenney said.

Dietz said the last warrant issued for Wells’ arrest has not yet been served, because police can’t find her. The U.S. Marshal’s Service and Roanoke police have followed leads in both New York City and Florida.

“We’ve done everything to get this case tried,” Dietz said. “The witnesses have not cooperated.”

Clemens took Dietz’s motion under advisement. He asked both Dietz and Kenney to submit written motions, either for dismissal or to be dropped for now, to the court.

Each attorney will have seven days to submit their argument. Then, Clemens said, he’ll make his decision in writing. Smith’s next court appearance is set for March 6.

Meanwhile, the warrant for Wells’ arrest is still active.

“That just makes our job harder. Plain and simple. That type of attitude, the no-snitching culture, it just allows for bad people to make more victims,” Thiel said. “They belong behind bars, where they can’t make any more victims, and they can’t hurt anybody.”

“It is my belief that sooner or later we’re going to find her,” Caldwell said. “She can dodge, but sooner or later, she’ll get tired of not being able to do anything for fear that someone’s going to walk up and arrest her. My prediction is she will turn herself in sometime when she just gets tired of it.”

Caldwell said his office wants to see that Smith’s case is prosecuted.

“Even if the man who was shot doesn’t care, it’s our opinion that the defendant is a dangerous man who has demonstrated that he’s more than willing to use guns,” Caldwell said, noting that Smith has been tried for a shooting that took place inside the Valley View Mall in December 2020.

For that incident, Smith was charged with malicious wounding and using a firearm in the commission of a felony. He was indicted on those charges in April 2021, and the following July, Smith was indicted on a third charge: maliciously shooting at an occupied building.

But two months later, on Sept. 9, 2021, he was acquitted by a jury on all three charges. The following October, the Eighth Street shooting occurred.

The city police department and commonwealth’s attorney office say they have resources that can help crime witnesses who have been threatened or perceive a threat to your safety,

“If people maybe don’t want to talk for themselves, do it for the next person that the person who hurt you might go after or might want to hurt. Do it for your community,” Caitlyn Cline, Roanoke police public information officer, said in a recent interview. “We will be there with you every step of the way. We will help you and we will keep you as safe as we can with the resources we have available.”