Foon Rhee: Two children take a courageous stand by testifying in murder trial

Published: Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 16A
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 29, 2013 - 8:51 am

I first ran across the "stop snitchin' " culture in Boston. I was editing stories on the surge of shootings and gang warfare there in the mid-2000s, and police said one of their biggest problems was that witnesses often wouldn't talk.

One reason was justifiable fear. That intimidation was worsened by a widespread sentiment in high-crime neighborhoods that it was disloyal to help law enforcement. This code of silence was promoted in rap videos. People wore "Stop Snitchin' " T-shirts that the mayor tried to ban.

So I was fascinated by the stories this week about the two young girls who testified in a Sacramento murder trial. They were 6 and 10 three years ago when Triston Salladay was stabbed on a stairway above where they were playing in Tahoe Park.

Prosecutors needed their testimony to fill in some gaps from what four adults told the jury last week. None of the adults said they actually saw Salladay get stabbed, or were able to identify the accused, Jesus Gallegos.

As The Bee's Andy Furillo described the courtroom scene, the younger girl – "a wispy little brown-haired pixie" – wasn't able to remember everything, but did see the knife sticking out of Salladay. A detective testified that just after the slaying, the girl told him she saw the man arguing on the stairway with Salladay stab him.

The older girl testified that she saw Gallegos in her apartment just before the killing. She told police three years ago that she saw Gallegos holding a knife.

Just think of the courage it took for them to go into a courtroom and tell their stories in public. They weren't intimidated, and neither were their families.

The Bee received a couple of letters to the editor – one is published today – praising the girls. They're absolutely right.

On Wednesday, Gallegos, 23, was found guilty of first-degree murder. He'll likely spend at least 25 years in prison, if not the rest of his life. Salladay's uncle said the verdict was proof the justice system works, however slowly.

This killing was not gang- related – it was apparently the result of a dispute over a stolen PlayStation – but it's most often cases involving gangs and drug violence in which people are too scared to help police or prosecutors.

Steve Grippi, Sacramento County's assistant chief deputy district attorney in charge of the homicide unit, says it's common for witnesses to recant statements, decline to testify, or refuse to cooperate at all. It's not unusual to have to put people into witness protection.

In fact, Grippi says, the same prosecutor in the Gallegos case is involved this week in another murder case in which the defendant's relatives are threatening witnesses and one witness had to be relocated.

"We have the utmost respect whenever someone is willing to come in and testify and then goes back to their neighborhood," Grippi told me.

This also shows how important community policing is, so that officers are trusted by residents and not seen as the enemy. So are neighborhood watches, adding residents' eyes and ears to the fight against crime.

It's not always easy to do the right thing. We find all sorts of excuses not to get involved. But as these two girls show us, justice can't be done otherwise.

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