It’s been years now since Philadelphia judges have been warning spectators to turn off their cell phones in the courtroom and not use them to try to surreptitiously photograph or text people about witnesses who are testifying.
Witness intimidation is a fact of life in a city where “don’t snitch” is part of the code of the streets and those who testify often face more than a cold shoulder from friends.
Now, some judges are trying to extend their reach beyond the courtroom, to the Internet and beyond.
“There is a protective order in this case,” announced Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Charles Hayden. “To everyone hearing my voice: this case will be resolved in the courts.”
Hayden repeated the warning and then added, “It would be a very bad mistake. The courts take very seriously intimidation of a witness. Anyone sending out messages on Facebook, or Twitter, that can be construed as intimidation of a witness, the likelihood of bail will be very slim.”
The proceeding in question Thursday was a preliminary hearing for Dimetrius Patterson, 23, the last of seven people charged in the June 18, 2011 strafing of a northbound Route 47 SEPTA bus as it stopped on Seventh Street at Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
This was the incident that was caught on video by eight newly installed cameras on the SEPTA bus. Prosecutors say Patterson was the one who got the call from friend Penny Chapman, 21, complaining that a bus passenger had criticized her parenting skills after she slapped her two-year-old son for running in the aisle.
Patterson’s plan, allege prosecutors, was to round up a posse of cousins and friends from her North Philadelphia neighborhood, travel to the bus stop and haul the offending passenger off the bus to express displeasure at his conduct.
“Something was going to happen to him,” testified Angel Lecourt, 19, the paternal uncle of Chapman’s son and a cousin of Patterson’s, who said he was the first person Patterson went to after getting the call from Chapman.
When the passenger did not comply and the bus began pulling away, two of Patterson’s cousins began firing at the bus with a semiautomatic rifle and pistol. Police say it was a miracle that no one was hurt.
Unlike Chapman and four others arrested shortly after the incident – Patterson was a fugitive until last December – Lecourt immediately began cooperating with investigators and reached a plea deal with the District Attorney’s office that required him to testify.
Word of Lecourt’s plea deal apparently became the incentive for Chapman and the four others to plead guilty this year and begin serving multi-year prison terms. Lecourt’s testimony – and the dramatic video – convinced Hayden on Thursday to hold Patterson for trial on attempted murder, conspiracy and related counts.
Now most of the 14 spectators in the courtroom gallery were reputed to be relatives of Patterson and Lecourt and, though there were no threats or disturbances from them in court, Hayden wasn’t taking chances.
Every new spectator entering the courtroom was greeted with a reprise of the judge’s earlier warning and an encore when the hearing ended: “Just to repeat, there is a protective order. No Facebook, no texting, no text messages, no cell phone contact.”
The spectators nodded their heads and several audibly replied, “Yes sir.”
Of course, three cell phone rang during the court hearing and, as the judge issued his last warning, a woman in the second row sat there, head down, busily texting away.