A gunshot victim defies the inner-city code of silence.
Maurice Ragland was close enough that he saw the bluish orange flame explode from the gun. Police found him lying beneath a streetlight, the blood spilling from his head. They thought he was dead. “I’m not dead,” he told them.
The ambulance ride was a blur—the slippery edge between this world and the next. A police officer’s voice grew loud. “Who shot you? Who shot you?” Ragland told them a drug dealer known as Kidney shot him. The police officer’s lips kept moving, but things went quiet, commotion without noise, and then nothing.
Ragland woke up a few days later in the hospital, his jaw hanging slack. He moved his tongue around the inside of his mouth and spit out teeth. He couldn’t feel the left side of his body. A doctor flipped through his chart and told him they’d operate in three days, once the crack cocaine cleared out of his system.
The day Ragland got home, Kidney’s corner boss paid him a visit. He had an offer.
“Five thousand,” he said, leaning in and speaking low. “Tell the law you made a mistake. You didn’t see who shot you. Let this go.” The corner boss left and Ragland thought over the offer. Then Ragland made a decision that forever changed his life and could still possibly end up killing him. He decided to snitch: to take the money and testify anyway. Teach Kidney a lesson. Tell the truth.
It’s been five months since Ragland testified against the man he says shot him. In doing so, he broke the cardinal rule of the Philadelphia streets—Do Not Snitch. That he survived his wounds is amazing enough, but that he testified is just as amazing.
Like many cities, No Snitching has become part of the fabric of Philadelphia’s criminal justice system. Statistics aren’t kept, but just walk into any homicide or major trials courtroom and sit down for a few hours and watch as a sad drama repeats itself: Witnesses are called to testify. They raise their hand and swear to tell the truth. They look at the defendant and scan the stone-faced neighborhood crowd packed into the court galley. They consider their options: Testify and put their life in danger or lie and go home without being branded a snitch. Then they deny every word they ever told the police. They never saw the defendant before. They weren’t there when it all went down. They were too high to remember. The police beat them. A prosecutor will read back their initial statement into the record, so it can be preserved for trial, and then the witnesses will be excused.
Prosecutors know what goes on— intimidation, payoffs, street justice—but witnesses rarely talk about that stuff in open court, says Prosecutor Ed McCann, Chief of the Homicide Unit.
“That part of the story remains on the streets,” says Jennifer Mitrick, the prosecutor handling Ragland’s case.
That is until Ragland testified at a May preliminary and matter-of-factly explained to a hushed courtroom how Keith “Kidney” Davis tried buying his silence after shooting him twice in the head at point blank range. Ragland explained it all—how Davis sent everyone from drug bosses to his own girlfriend and mother to urge him to keep quiet and offered him five grand to accompany him to the office of a Center City defense attorney and sign an affidavit saying he didn’t know who shot him. At one point, Davis even paid for a private attorney Ragland needed to deal with a burglary case of his own. Ragland took the money and the assistance and then, as he likes to say, he “burned,” the man who shot him.
In doing so, Ragland provided a rare—and extremely unsettling—look into Philadelphia’s Stop Snitchin’ culture, undoubtedly one of the biggest barriers to staunching the amount of blood that flows through our neighborhood streets each year. And while Ragland has his own reasons for testifying— revenge and money, mostly—his story allows for a better understanding of uncompromising realities many witnesses and victims confront when deciding to take the stand in Philadelphia. We can’t combat the Stop Snitchin’ mindset if we don’t understand it. Ragland understands it, he’s living through it.
Now he’s paying the price for his actions. He is a known snitch, a man on the run who sleeps in abandoned houses to hide from anyone who might try to kill him before he can testify at Davis’ February trial. Ragland carries his few possessions—some clothes, medications and soaps—in a backpack. He says many of his friends have disowned him. “What goes on in the hood is hood business,” they tell him. “The next time someone shoots you, they gonna put more than two in your head.” But Ragland is determined to finish what he started. To tell the truth about what happened to him.
“He almost killed me,” he says. “I just don’t trust him.”
Ragland takes a seat in a second floor conference room at the District Attorney’s office—a place where he is undeniably safe. At 44-years-old, he is a tall thin man with well-defined facial features and a balding head that bears the scars of his two bullet wounds: a half-inch discolored patch of skin that runs above his right eye and the spider-webbed rumple of skin about the size of a cigar tip behind his left ear. He speaks softly, deliberately and says he understands the danger he’s putting himself in by sharing his story. But then he smiles the smile of a man who was shot in the head twice and survived.
“When God ready for me, he come and get me,” he says.
Ragland hopes that “putting his business out there so even the law can see it,” will help him live clean and quit drugs.
He begins by explaining the circumstances he believes led to Davis shooting him. Ragland has a street past of his own.
“I’ve got a nasty reputation for taking things,” he says.
Ragland spent close to three years in prison for breaking into people’s homes, and has been addicted to crack for almost two decades. (When he was 27 he received three years probation for the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl; he says it was consensual, but the mother pressed charges.) To support his drug habit, he stole drugs from drug dealers.
“Real dangerous,” he says.
While buying drugs during the day, he’d scout out where a dealer hid his stash, then return late at night and take it. He says he never used a gun.
“I’m not the kind of person to strong-arm someone,” he says. “There’s ways to do things. I’d wait till the big bosses leave, and it’s just the newcomers on the corner—there’s always some new drug dealer on the scene that don’t know better—and I’d wait till they were all blunted up or off with a female somewhere and I’d come through the backyards and alleys and take their packages.”
He robbed drug dealers for years, he says—“probably a hundred times”—and never got caught.
“God looks out for fools and babies,” he says. “He looked out for this fool.”
PW's Summer Guide 2014