Say cheese

How bad is the problem of witness intimidation in Philadelphia’s criminal court system?

Consider the case of Devin Smith, the 27-year-old man charged in the Feb. 8 killing of Ramona Bell, 49, whose badly beaten body was found inside a house in the 4700 block of Salem Street in Frankford.

Smith had a preliminary hearing Tuesday that ended after two hours with Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Patrick F. Dugan ordering Smith to stand trial for murder -- despite two witnesses “going south” on the prosecutor and a relative of the victim getting charged for allegedly taking a cellphone picture of a witness.

Courtroom 306 – “murder court” – the Criminal Justice Center room where all homicide preliminary hearings are held, is known for its volatile atmosphere. Fisticuffs periodically erupt between relatives of victims and defendants who sit in well-worn wooden pews separated by about four feet of aisle.

Smith’s hearing hadn’t even started when Dugan said he saw a camera flash bounce off the bullet-proof glass that separates the public gallery from the courtroom. Court staff confronted a very startled 27-year-old Darrell Marshall and confiscated two cellphones.

While the subject of Marshall’s alleged snapshot was unclear, the prosecutor’s first witness, Darnell Kenan, 38, was already in the witness box. Kenan, who had in custody on a drug charge, had been brought into court even before Smith.

If Marshall’s picture-taking was an attempt to intimidate Kenan, it wasn’t needed. Smith and Kenan spent so much time glaring at each other that deputies ordered Kenan to turn-around and face the back wall.

From Assistant District Attorney Brendan O’Malley’s first question, Kenan said he didn’t remember – anything. He didn’t know Smith, the victim, the house on Salem Street or the street itself although police arrested him there. He certainly didn’t remember telling homicide detectives in a signed statement that Smith beat and kicked Bell in the head and chest or that he carried the unconscious bloodied Bell to an upstairs bedroom after Smith was done.

Kenan insisted detectives threatened him with more jail time if he didn’t sign the statement: “I have learning disabilities and I didn’t know nothing, and I don’t think it’s fair that they want to force me to be a witness.”

The next witness, Keith Bennett, 54, in custody on a burglary charge, did not go south on O’Malley like Kenan. More like south by southwest. He hemmed and hawed, shifted in his seat, and said he couldn’t read his statement because he forgot his glasses. The judge solved that problem by lending his glasses to Bennett. Finally, Bennett, who lived in the Salem Street house, reluctantly confirmed that he told homicide detectives he saw Smith beating Bell and then pointed out Smith in court.

Bennett also confirmed that he told detectives that Smith is a “crazy [expletive] and when you go after him you better be ready.”

Defense attorney Robert J. Dixon argued that Smith should face trial only on third-degree murder -- not a general murder charge that would expose him to a life-prison term -- because Bell’s death occurred during a beating.

O’Malley, however, said Smith should be tried on a general murder charge precisely because it is so unusual these days for someone to be killed without use of a gun or other weapon.

“The nature of this beating is that it was not an accident, it was no one-punch case,” O’Malley told Dugan, who held Smith on the general charge.

As for Marshall, Dugan appointed him a lawyer, and told him he was being charged with contempt of court. Marshall, who has prior convictions for carrying a gun without a license and for drug possession, was allowed to go free while technicians from the District Attorney’s office examine his cellphones to determine what pictures he might have taken. Marshall has a hearing on Sept. 20.