By George Anastasia
The question is at the heart of the prosecution's case against North Philadelphia drug kingpin Kaboni Savage.
"How does he run from his own words?" Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gallagher asked a federal jury today as he detailed the case against Savage and three co-defendants in closing arguments at the 13-week old trial.
Alternately methodical, articulate, impassioned and poignant, Gallagher laid out the case for more than five hours to a jury that could determine whether Savage and two of those co-defendants live or die. All three face potential death sentences in convicted of any of the 12 homicides that are part of the case.
Savage, Gallagher argued, used a "scorched earth strategy" to control his drug empire and to silence witnesses who might cooperate against him.
The trial included testimony from dozens of witnesses, including several former top associates of the drug lord. In addition, the anonymously chosen jury heard over 300 secretly recorded conversations in which Savage discussed his drug businesses and ranted about cooperators, threatening again and again to kill them and their families.
Eight of the 12 murders listed in the case have been tied to witness intimidation, according to the prosecution. They include the October 2004 firebombing of a North Sixth Street row house in which two women and four children were killed. The victims were all family members of Eugene Coleman, a Savage associate who had begun cooperating.
Those killed in that early morning blaze included Coleman's mother and his 15-month old son.
The house, "a refuge from the drugs and violence of the neighborhood," Gallagher said in an impassioned opening to his lengthy argument, was "turned into an inferno" on Savage's orders.
"He slaughtered the Coleman family to avenge the betrayal of one of his trusted associates," Gallagher told the jury. "Everything Eugene Coleman loved had to go."
Gallagher, one of three prosecutors in the case, is expected to conclude his arguments when the trial resumes tomorrow. The jury will then hear from the four defense attorneys. A government rebuttal and the judge's charge on the law will complete the closing process. Jury deliberation could begin later this week.
Gallagher effectively sprinkled snippets of Savage's own words into his detailed account of the case. The jury heard lengthier segments during the trial from conversations picked up on FBI wiretaps or from listening devices planted in Savage's prison cell.
"I'll kill what they love," Savage said on one tape in which he plotted to murder family members of cooperators.
"Without no witness, you ain't got no case," he said in another conversation that Gallagher said underscored his philosophy of witness intimidation and murder. "Without no fuckin' witness, there ain't no crime."
Gallagher also pointed to a tape in which Savage, discussing two small children of another associate who became a witness, said he wanted to "kill both them little bastards...Hit them with a 12-gauge Mossberg."
A Mossberg is a particularly lethal shotgun.
The tapes were gathered during a decade-long federal investigation into the Savage drug ring, an organization that authorities allege dumped hundreds of pounds of cocaine onto the streets of North Philadelphia between 1998 and 2005. Savage was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced in 30 years in prison in 2005.
Savage, 38, is being tried along with his sister, Kidada, 30, Robert Merritt, 31, and Steven Northington, 41.
Kidada Savage faces life in prison. She is charged with helping set up on the firebombing of the Coleman home on orders from her then imprisoned brother. Merritt is charged with throwing a gas can into the home. He could receive the death penalty.
His cousin Lamont Lewis, 37, another top Savage associate, testified for the prosecution. Lewis said he recruited Merritt to take part in the arson. Lewis said he was acting on Kaboni Savage's orders relayed through Kidada Savage. But he insisted that neither he nor Merritt knew there were children in the home.
Northington is charged with two other murders, including the killing of Tibius Flowers. Flowers, like Savage, was both a drug dealer and a professional boxer. He was killed the day before he was to testify for the District Attorney's Office in a homicide case against Savage in 2004.
Without Flower's testimony, the case fell apart. Savage was acquitted.
Savage, Gallagher told the jury, orchestrated crimes of vengeance and of hate. He controlled his drug operations by creating a "climate of fear" in which he and his associates thrived.
And he talked about all of those things again and again on tapes recorded by the FBI and played at the trial.
"It was Kaboni Savage in his own words, " Gallagher said. And it is, he prosecutor argued, proof behind a reasonable doubt of Savage's guilt.
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net.