According to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, the problem of witness intimidation in city courts remains at a “near epidemic” level.
In violent neighborhoods across the city, homicide cases remain unsolved and a culture of fear lingers in the streets.
This is the story of one Southwest Philadelphia woman’s struggle against that culture as she tries to find justice for her son.
Summer night in Southwest Philly
On the night Monique Irvis found out her 19-year-old son Eric Woods was murdered, she was home alone watching TV and doing laundry.
“Folding up clothes and I was watching one of them dance shows,” Irvis said. “Until this day I can’t even watch it.”
It was a Wednesday night in Southwest Philadelphia, and Eric had gone out with his best friend to watch a basketball game at the Kingsessing rec center.
The game ended a little before 9 o’clock. By about 9:45, Irvis’ phone rang. It was the best friend.
“It’s like a panic and screaming, and I didn’t really understand what he was saying,” she said. “He just kept saying, ‘Eric got shot. Eric got shot,’ and I was like, ‘yeah all right, whatever.’ You know, I didn’t believe it.”
Before she knew it, Irvis found herself in the passenger seat of a neighbor’s car as it sped to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
But before Irvis could see her son, he was declared dead from a single gunshot wound to the chest.
That was Aug. 1, 2007.
More than five years later, Eric’s case remains unsolved and Irvis remains determined to track down her son’s killer. She’s raised $21,000 in reward money. She’s reached out to Al Sharpton, America’s Most Wanted — anyone she thinks could help.
“I pray about it all the time and I really want it,” Irvis said. “I don’t want that person to die. I want him to pay.”
Despite her efforts, there’s been no progress.
The hardest thing for her is that she’s convinced that her son’s best friend knows exactly what happened that night, knows exactly who did it. But the friend — who used to live in her house — won’t talk.
Shortly after the murder, she took him back to the scene of the crime. They stood on the corner of Divinity Street and Springfield Avenue around the same time of day that Eric was shot.
“‘I mean that light’s so bright where my son was shot at, and you right here, and you don’t see nothing?'” she asked the friend. ‘”That don’t make sense to me, cause, we out here in the dark. It ain’t light outside, so I can see very well right here. So you can’t tell me you don’t know who did it.”‘
Irvis’ daughter, Dana, was Eric’s older sister. She sees the best friend around the neighborhood sometimes still.
“Give me at least as much respect to say ‘Miss Monique, Dana, I do know who it is, but I’m just afraid to tell,'” said Dana. “Give me that. But they won’t say anything. They won’t say anything and they just kept lying and lying.”
To Myra Maxwell, West Philly native and director of Victim Services at Philadelphia’s Anti-Violence Partnership, it’s an all too typical case.
“There’s an old saying that snitches get stitches and then end up in ditches.”
Every time a homicide occurs in Philadelphia, Maxwell’s office gets the file. It’s their job to offer support to the deceased’s family members, who they call the co-victims.
But as much sympathy as Maxwell has for victims, she can understand why some witnesses stay silent.
“It’s just a culture that we’ve kinda come to know, because people are saying, ‘Well the district attorney’s office can’t protect me. Any law enforcement agency can’t protect me so where do I go? I don’t have the money or the means to probably leave the community,'” she said.
“And if I leave, what about my family? Are they still going to be safe in that community? Some people have lived in this community their entire life. This is the only area they know.”
All this brings up the question of what exactly can the district attorney’s office do for you if you witness a violent crime.
Leland Kent, executive director of witness, victim and neighborhood services for the DA’s office, says they can relocate you, but first you have to convince the police that you’re in “imminent danger.”
“What’s the intimidation? Is it overt? Is it something that’s subliminal, or is it just fear?” Kent said.
Police will look at the rap sheet for the accused — checking for violent prior offenses and connections with other known violent offenders.
If they think you’re in danger, they’ll pass word on to Kent’s office where it will arrange for you to go anywhere in the continental United States, preferably with family members already living out of state. The goal will be to get you out of the danger area for five years.
Kent’s office will pay for the upfront costs of relocation — “moving costs, storage fees, security deposit,” he said.
After that, it’ll be up to you and your family to find new jobs and figure out how to pay the rent.
In the 19 years Kent’s been in the DA’s office, he says he’s helped thousands of families relocate. Of that number, five have been murdered; in each case, the relocated witness returned to city against the advice of the DA’s office.
In 2011, when the program’s budget was about $750,000, 82 families were relocated.
In 2012, after the city pumped another $400,000 into the program, that number jumped to 150 families.
Ideally, Kent says, the budget for relocation should be closer to $2 million. And there should be a whole separate unit of detectives and prosecutors whose sole primary responsibility “would be to investigate intimidation and hold those accountable who obstruct justice,” he said.
Grand jury as solution?
There is another strategy that the DA’s office has employed to aid in the city’s fight against witness intimidation.
Starting in December of 2012, the state Supreme Court began allowing Philadelphia courts to hold preliminary trial proceedings before a grand jury. This process bars defendants, their attorneys and the general public from knowing who’s on the witness list until the actual trial begins.
District attorneys say this has made witnesses much more comfortable, but the official line from the DA’s office is that it’s too early to know precisely how effective the rule change has been.
No matter what changes occur citywide, for Monique Irvis, the personal drive to see her son’s killer brought to justice is unrelenting.
“I just miss my son a lot, and some people say I’m consumed with it — I don’t know if I am or not. “To me I have to try every tactic I could think of,” she said.
“I try everything, you know, but nothing helps.”
This is the first of a two-part series on witness intimidation in Philadelphia. Part two will be published Wednesday evening.