Two suspected gang members shook off murder charges Friday due to a dead prosecution witness, sparking renewed calls for reform in The City’s witness relocation program.
Without the eyewitness testimony of Terrell Rollins, District Attorney Kamala Harris’ office had insufficient evidence with which to try Daniel Dennard, 22, and Deonte Bennett, 21, Superior Court Judge Ksenin Tsenin ruled Friday. The two alleged members of the Oakdale Mob gang were accused of killing 20-year-old Arkelylius Collins on Sept. 19, 2005, and Rollins was the sole eyewitness.
Rollins, 22, was killed in a hail of gunfire on May 4 as he stood in front of a Bayview district auto shop. At the time of his death he was the prosecution’s main witness against Dennard and Bennett. He was enrolled in the District Attorney’s witness relocation program, but strayed from that program to return to his old neighborhood. Police have indicated that Rollins was killed because of his role as a witness for the prosecution.
Rollins’ death incited calls for an overhaul of the witness protection program, as well as increased funding. Police have said many of The City’s increasingly frequent homicides are the result of gang activity, but witnesses who are willing to testify in court have been hard to come by because many of them know the killers and fear retribution.
"There is a profound distinction between knowing a crime has occurred and being able to prove a crime has occurred," Harris said Friday. "There’s a great frustration because we know something happened, but there’s a very big step in between, in being able to have the witnesses to that crime, being able to prove that crime."
Community activist Sharon Hewitt said Friday that it’s unrealistic to expect witnesses to completely leave behind their family and community. "The witness protection program can only be as good as The City’s coordinated system of response to communities that are under siege," Hewitt said.
After Rollins’ death, Harris doubled the staff in the witness relocation program and held a June summit with faith-based and community leaders to discuss community cooperation.
Harris’ spokeswoman, Debbie Mesloh, indicated that, because the relocation program is designed and funded at the state level, reform needs to happen there as well. "Ideally, we need long-term services and support for the people who come forward," Mesloh said.
Rollins’ testimony before a grand jury led to Dennard and Bennett’s indictment in Collins’ killing but, under the 2004 United States Supreme Court decision, grand jury testimony cannot be admitted into evidence in a trial because it does not include cross-examination.
Harris said her office would continue to pursue the case, but unless new evidence surfaces, the same charges cannot be refiled against Dennard and Bennett.