A Final Thought on the Closing-the-Courts Bluff

September 18, 2009

      Was Plan C all a bluff? Maybe. But Nutter’s threat to close the courts definitely was. Forget about the masses wallowing in sardine can prisons while their constitutional rights to face a judge went denied. Forget about the fact that the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority was never going to approve a budget without court funding. And just think about the logistics of trying to close down the Criminal Justice Center. Upwards of 2,000 criminal hearings are heard there  and in the district courts every single day. So if the CJC was closed down even for a week that would be roughly 10,000 cases to reschedule. Imagine a month? It couldn’t happen. Philly court dockets are already so backed up that new trials are being scheduled as far out as February.
      Throughout all this, people inside the DA’s office were calmed by the fact that Lynne Abraham never addressed the possibility of the courts closing with an office-wide meeting like she did when the first round of budget cuts were announced in May.
      “Not a lot of people were worried about it,” one DA source told me. “A lot of people saw it for what it was — a political ruse.”
      With this whole mess finally over, many are now debating what Nutter’s giant — and possibly bullshit — orchestration of impending despair does to his credibility. And that’s a good question. Threatening to close the courts when it was never a real possibility should not be considered ballsy political gamesmanship. It was irresponsible. Another blow to our self-confidence.  With the budget as it is, this city already has enough reasons to feel shitty about itself. We shouldn’t have had to imagine ourselves without a court system.


Plan C Averted

September 17, 2009

The great Doomsday-The-Courts-Will-Be-Shuttered-and-Law-and-Order-Will-Cease-to-Exist scenario is over.

State lawmakers just okayed the sales tax hike and two-year reprieve on city pension payments.

Rendell is expected to sign the bill shortly.

In a related bit of news, the Committee of Seventy today filed a motion with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania urging it to actually enforce it’s two decade old ruling requiring Harrisburg to fund Philly’s court system.

Nine county governments are supporting the lawsuit, said Zachary Stalberg, Seventy’s President and CEO.

But Philly has yet to join suit.  This seems odd given Nutter’s demands for this very state funding during the Doomsday Panic.

“We wish Philadelphia was leading the charge,” said Stalberg in a statement, which pointed out that Philly has the state’s largest judicial budget (nearly 100 million), and biggest workforce (1,850 employees.)

It’ll be interesting to see how this develops given the budget settlement.

More to come.

Death of an OG

September 17, 2009

Jimmy Whitefield was asleep when two neighborhood punks broke into his North Philadelphia home on April 30 and nudged him awake with the long barrel of a .357 magnum. Those who knew Whitefield were not surprised by what happened next. The retired longshoreman, 65-years-old with an ailing heart, lunged at the burglars. He was not a man accustomed to fear, even when staring down the barrel of a very large gun.

“I’m gonna kill you,” were Whitefield’s dying words. He was shot through the neck and head and died in his nightshirt. 

It was an undignified end. 

Whitefield was a colorful character who first earned a reputation as a street fighter during Philly’s gang battles of the ‘50s and ‘60s. He served some time after stabbing a man in a fist fight turned deadly. He put in forty years down the waterfront unloading ships, while working on the side as a trash man. He was a respected regular in many juke joints and cabarets and was known for his loud dress—suedes, silks, gators, Barsalino hats, gold on his wrists and fingers. He kept a couple hundred in his pockets so he could buy a few rounds or spot some cash to a friend. And he was the man neighborhood kids went to see about work. He’d set them up down the waterfront or send them to his friends in construction. He even landed one of his killers a gig installing drywall. 

At a preliminary hearing last week, a detective read a statement from one of Whitefield’s killers, 22-year-old Larry Bryant. “Yeah, I knew him as OG,” Bryant said of Whitefield. OG. Original Gangsta. A term of respect from kids who know nothing of respect. Whitefield lived by a code. There was little glory attached to it. He had flashy taste, so he worked hard. He fought men hand-to-hand, and, after taking a man’s life, served penance by helping neighborhood kids get meaningful work. His killers are products of the new street mentality, where guns have replaced guts, and work and human life hold little value. His killers wanted money and knew nothing more than to stick a gun to the head of someone trying to help them. Whitefield’s murder is a particularly telling one because it helps explain why homicide rates have skyrocketed in recent decades: Murder is no longer a last resort, just an easy first option.

His surname was Whitefield, but growing up in the Tasker Projects, he was pegged with the nickname, “Long,” for his sloping forehead. The name stuck. Jimmy Long went through the ninth grade before dropping out to work in a grocery store. At 18, he met a beauty named Shirley Williams and moved into her family’s West Philly home. 

“When Jimmy was courting my sister he beat up a dozen of the roughest, toughest gangstas in the neighborhood just so people would get to know him,” remembers Minister Lewis Williams, Jimmy’s brother-in-law. “Jimmy didn’t make his reputation on small guys.”

It was a time when every neighborhood had a street gang: 42nd and Mantua. The Watusi. The Moon gang. “I’ve seen a hundred men in the street fighting at one time,” said Williams. Jimmy probably had 50 one-on-one street fights in his life, he said. 

When Jimmy got back from the service—where he attained the rank of a sergeant in the Army Rangers—he bought the Ashdale Street home for his new wife and young daughter. Three bedrooms and a yard around the corner from LaSalle University. Shirley ordered customized china and Jimmy logged 60 hour workweeks down the waterfront and late nights at the bar. Jimmy’s closest drinking buddy, Andre Glasco, remembered one evening at Circles Bar on Broad Street when a stick-up man put a gun to Jimmy’s head. 

“Everybody on the floor,” the men yelled. “Hold that thought,” Glasco remembered Jimmy saying, before taking the man’s gun. 

Everybody was yelling for Jimmy to kill the would-be robber. But he didn’t.

“He took a beating, lost his gun and didn’t get any money. I think he had a bad enough night,” said Jimmy.

In the summer of 1989, when Jimmy was 45, he got into a fight outside Circles with 27-year-old Michael Curry. According to witnesses and court papers, Curry had overtaken Jimmy, beating him between two parked cars. Jimmy went for his work knife. Curry died later that night at Einstein Hospital. 

Jimmy turned himself in, waived his right to a jury trial, and told the judge he didn’t think he had any choice but to go to his blade. The judge gave him two to four years. 

“My father didn’t talk about it much,” said his daughter, Tira Moore, “except that it was either him or the other guy.”

Cancer took Shirley a few years after Jimmy was released from prison, and Jimmy retired from the waterfront in March after developing a heart condition. He took a new woman, but kept a shrine of photographs of Shirley in his dining room. Jimmy drank less and stayed home more nights watching westerns.

“He loved John Wayne,” said Glasco. 

Jimmy turned 65 just a few days before his death. He hadn’t yet received his first social security check.

According to prosecutor MK Feeney, Jimmy Whitefield’s killers, Larry Bryant and Anthony Garnett, had been friends since childhood, having the random connection of being born on the same day: June 9, 1987. Both have criminal histories. Garnett for theft; Bryant for pulling a gun on cops. On the night of the murder, Garnett was complaining over his natty clothes and empty pockets. Jimmy had set them up with some work in the past, and they knew he carried cash. The plan was simple. Bryant would pop the side door lock with a screwdriver and Garnett would hold the .357. 

Bryant popped the lock easily. Using their cell phones for light, they rooted through the dining room furniture, then crept upstairs. The bedroom television was on and they could hear Jimmy snoring. 

“He’s alone,” said Garnett. 

Bryant watched from the stairs, as Jimmy went for the gun and Garnett fired twice.

The two ran from the house in fear, but soon returned, stepping over Jimmy’s body as they ransacked the bedrooms. A neighbor saw shadows passing behind the curtains and called police. The killers were found hiding behind an entertainment center in Jimmy’s living room. Both have since been held for trial on murder charges.

A large funeral was held and Jimmy went to meet his maker in a white suit and hat, a flashy red tie and matching alligator shoes.

Jury Visits Scene of Sean Patrick Conroy Killing

August 18, 2009

The murder trial for three Simon Gratz students accused of beating Sean Patrick Conroy to death on Septa platform last March continued today with Judge Jeffrey Minehart bringing the jury to the scene of the crime. Police officers blocked entrances to the Juniper Street Septa entrance, and struggled to keep cameramen at bay. A little before 11am, a court crier declared, “Court is in session,” and, with an assembly of attorneys and media looking on, Judge Minehart led the jury down the length of the concourse where the killing occurred.

According to yesterday’s testimony, the teens attacked Conroy – who was 36-years-old and engaged to be married — at random because one of the students, Kinta Stanton, wanted to prove his toughness after being “disrespected” at a school card game. A dare was made “to hit somebody” and the teens agreed to attack the next person they saw. It was Conroy, who on his way to work as a manger at the Marriot Inn Starbucks.

Earlier in the morning, defendants Ameer Best and Nashir Fisher  (Stanton is still in custody) sat in the courtroom galley, laughing and joking with each other.  In the concourse, however, the accused killers  sat silently on a police guarded four-wheeler as the jury filed past, inspecting the dirty, foul-smelling concourse where Sean Patrick Conroy died.

A Fight over Lust and God ends in Death

August 14, 2009

The group of men had returned to their homeless shelter after a free festival in a nearby park. It was the first Saturday in August; the day had been sunny and now the men reclined on their bunks, talking about the fine-looking women at the festival. One of the men was 19-year-old Brian Cobb. Despite a serious rap sheet for simple assault, harassment and theft, Cobb had developed a reputation around the Southwest Philly shelter as being a zealous follower of God.

“Everyone knew him as a church guy,” testified Jamire Braxton, another resident at the shelter, during Wednesday’s preliminary hearing.

But on this night, Cobb wasn’t talking about God. He was describing the rear end of a woman he’d seen at the festival, and the things he’d like to do with the women if given a chance.

Gerald Smith was lying on the bunk next to Cobb. Mr. Smith — as he was respectfully known at the shelter because of his age, 51 — had a reputation for offering his opinions, even when they weren’t requested, and for sometimes not knowing when to let a thing pass.

“You call yourself a Christian, then why you talking about that girl’s butt for?” Mr. Smith demanded to know. “That’s lust, son.”

Mr. Smith and Cobb were roommates, and one can only suspect the argument that followed had roots somewhere deeper inside their relationship. Mr. Smith went onto call Cobb a phony and a fake, said the Devil was running wild through the boy.

“You’re not a Christian,” said Mr. Smith.

Cobb searched the room for a Bible — apparently, he didn’t have one of his own — wanting to quote scripture that proved his desirous thoughts did not constitute a sin.

“I’ll prove it to you,” said Cobb. “It’s in the Bible.”

“Get the fuck out here,” said Mr. Smith, dismissively, and according to Braxton, the witness, this set something off in Cobb.

“I’m sick and tired of people telling me what to say and how to say it,” he remembered Cobb saying to Mr. Smith. “You’re always running your mouth. I should punch you in your face.”

“Why don’t you,” said Mr. Smith.

The two men rose to their feet, their bunks so close they were immediately nose-to-nose.

Cobb grabbed Mr. Smith’s shoulders and Mr. Smith threw a punch. The two men grappled for a few moments. Mr. Smith was heavier than the leanly-built Cobb, but Cobb quickly punched and wrestled the older man to the floor. Attempting to break free of his hold, Mr. Smith clawed at Cobb’s face, but Cobb was able to get his arms around Mr. Smith’s throat, where he settled him into a headlock. A witness ran to inform staff, but, according to Braxton, no one came for more than ten minutes. (The Outley House shelter, where the incident took place, did not return calls for comment.) Meanwhile, Cobb continued to squeeze the air out of Mr. Smith.

“I know you feel disrespected as a man going through this,” Cobb taunted Mr. Smith .

“Okay man, you got it. You got it,” said Mr. Smith, pleading to be let go.

Finally, Cobb released his grip. Mr. Smith got up, dazed, and sat on his bed, touching his fingers to the blood running from his nose and mouth. Then, his throat made a strange gurgling sound and his body began to shake and he fell back on his bed. A shelter staff member ran into the room.

“Oh shit, oh shit!” Braxton remembers the staffer yelling upon seeing the dying Mr. Smith.

A few minutes passed before Mr. Smith stopped trembling. Braxton looked into his eyes. They were rolled over, grey, and he had no pulse.

“He’s gone,” said Braxton.

At last Wednesday’s preliminary hearing, Assistant District Attorney Richard Sax read from the medical examiner’s report concerning Mr. Smith’s demise: “A heart attack brought on by physical struggle, including the compression of the neck.”

The matter of death, ruled the medical examiner, was homicide.

The ten-minute headlock represented a “sustained and reckless disregard for human life,” argued Sax, and Judge Teresa Carr Deni agreed, ruling Cobb should stand trial for third-degree murder.

For his part, Cobb seemed smug during the proceedings. He smirked and laughed a lot. Looking at him, you couldn’t tell if the Devil was running wild in him, like Mr. Smith had said. But he did look like a kid who had been hurt pretty badly along the way, and who was now taking pleasure in having hurt someone else. You could tell that, because he was smiling as they led him from the courtroom.

                                                                          — Mike Newall

The Murderer Without A Face

August 14, 2009

On March 18, Edward Wilson stuck a shotgun into the back of a woman who no longer wanted to be his girlfriend and pulled the trigger. Then, he went home, barricaded himself in his West Philadelphia basement and turned the gun on himself, blowing off his face.

“We need you to come outside right now,” police negotiator Samer Musallam had told him minutes earlier.

“Okay”, Wilson responded. “I just want to get a bite to eat.”

That’s when police heard a gunshot and then moans coming from the basement. Sticking a camera through a window, saw Wilson lying on the floor and went in after him. They found a mess.

“He had no face,” testified Officer Manus Cassidy. “It was gone.”

By a “miracle of science,” as defense attorney Thomas Burke put it, Wilson, with a new partially reconstructed face, appeared in court this week for a preliminary hearing for the murder of Antoinette Austin.

Assistant District Attorney James Berardinelli presented the case for the commonwealth. Wilson, who is 54, and Austin, who was 26, had lived together as a couple in West Philadelphia for eight years. Sometime last year, Wilson had a stroke, after which he apparently became abusive. Austin ended the relationship and moved out of the house.

On the day of the murder, Wilson convinced Austin to take a drive with him. She again rejected his advances and tried to get out of the car on the 7500 block of Lansdowne Avenue, near the bottom of a small hill on a golf course. Wilson allegedly then pulled the shotgun from the back seat and shot her through her back. She was breathing when police found her. At first, she would not answer any of their questions.

“Do you want me to tell your momma who did this?” police woman Vicky Phillips asked her.

Austin nodded her head.

“Then you have to tell me who it was,” said Phillips.

Austin said it was Edward Wilson, and died soon after.

Throughout the hearing, Wilson, a tall, thin man with long, dangly arms, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, sat handcuffed at the defense table. His reconstructed face was held together by a metal contraption running from ear-to-ear and connected to his jaw. His cheeks were swollen like a chipmunk. His eyes were wide like an owl, and they didn’t seem to blink much. His nose and mouth were concave. He was incapable of making any sort of facial expression.

The judge held him on murder charges.

Sentencing For ‘Hoagie Man’ Killer

August 14, 2009

The neighborhood kids around 23rd and Jefferson knew Craig Young as, “The Hoagie Man.” Or simply, “Mr. Craig.” The 41-year-old worked as a clerk in the Yasmin Food Market for 15 years, and had become a smiling, joking, watchful uncle to many young people who came through the shop. On the night of December 13, 2007, an argument developed outside the store between Nathan Bundy, 41, and Jerome Foreman, 33. They were arguing over a Breitiling watch. Bundy had fronted Foreman the watch on the promise of payment. Foreman hadn’t paid yet, so threats were exchanged, and then bursts of gunfire.

“It was a high west type of shootout,” says Assistant District Attorney James Berardinelli.

Young was inside the store sitting atop an Ice Cream cooler when the shooting started. A slug from Bundy’s 9mm pierced a window and passed through his back and chest.

In May, Bundy was found guilty of third degree murder. On Wednesday, he stood before Judge Leon Tucker for sentencing. First, Carolyn Young spoke to the court about her brother, who lived with her at the Blumberg Apartments.

“Every night at 9:30, he’d come home from the shop,” she said, through tears. “He’d come home carrying on and laughing…I miss him.”

Phil Young said his brother’s two children lost a father, but a whole neighborhood “lost a mentor.”

“He loved kids,” he said.

Before levying his sentence, Judge Tucker allowed Bundy to speak.

“Praise Be Allah,” began Bundy. “I want to apologize to the family. It was an accident, nothing more, nothing less. I never meant to take nobody from this planet, that’s not what I do.”

This, of course, was a statement hard to believe given Bundy fired 13 shots at Foreman, emptying his gun during the shootout. He tried to kill a man over a watch, missed, and killed The Hoagie Man.

He received a sentence of 19 to 38 years.

— Mike Newall