By George Anastasia
They've heard him rant about killing witnesses and their families.
They've listened as he's railed against law enforcement agents who were investigating him.
And they've heard him wax philosophically and darkly -- "No witness, no crime" -- about dealing with the criminal justice system.
But what the jury in the murder-racketeering trial of North Philadelphia drug kingpin Kaboni Savage, 38, apparently won't hear is Savage from the witness stand. Defense attorneys indicated that neither Savage nor any of his three co-defendants are likely to take the stand as the 12-week old trial winds down.
Savage's two court-appointed attorneys began calling witnesses this morning, but said that their client, who testified in his own defense in a 2005 drug trafficking trial, has opted not to take the stand this time.
While the stakes were high in the drug trial -- Savage was convicted and is currently serving a 30-year sentence -- they are even higher in the current case. Savage and his three-codefendants, his sister, Kidada, 30, Robert Merritt, 31, and Stephen Northington, 40, face potential life sentences if convicted of any of the 12 homicides that were part of an indictment handed up four years ago.
Savage, Merritt and Northington also could be sentenced to death based on the findings of the anonymously chosen jury.
The homcides include the October 2004 firebombing of a North Philadelphia rowhouse in which two women and four children were killed. Authorities allege Savage ordered that arson from prison while awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges.
The victims were family members of Eugene Coleman, a one-time Savage associate who had begun cooperating with authorities. Coleman testified at the 2005 drug trial and was a key witness in the current trial as well.
The case has included testimony from several other key members of Savage's alleged cocaine distribution ring. The jury has also heard more than 300 secretly recorded conversations from FBI wiretaps or from electronic listening devices hidden in Savage's prison cell.
The firebombing was described in detail by Lamont Lewis, another Savage associate who said that he and Merritt set the house ablaze. He testified that they were acting on Savage's orders and that Kidada had helped set the firebombing in motion.
Lewis, a hulking, 37-year-old drug underworld enforcer, also testified about other murders he said he carried out on Savage's orders, including the killing of Carlton Brown, a drug rival.
One of the first witnesses called by the defense today, Steven Robinson, 40, testified that he sold drugs for Lewis in North Philadelphia and said Lewis and Brown had long been at odds. His testimony was designed to support the defense contention that Lewis acted on his own, not on Savage's orders, when he killed in the drug underworld.
Robinson, who has a plate in his head and a brace on his thigh, walked with a limp as he took the witness stand. He said he had been shot twice by Brown while dealing drugs in North Philadelphia, barely surviving the assassination attempts.
The first shooting occurred in 1998, he said, shortly after he had completed a six-year prison sentence and returned to drug dealing.
When asked how many bullets had pierced his body, Robinson replied, "I don't know a number, but it was a nice amount ... more than 12."
He said he was in a coma for three months and had to undergo extensive therapy to relearn how to walk. But once he recovered, he returned to his North Philadelphia neighborhood and began dealing drugs again.
He said he worked for Lewis moving a street corner drug known as "sherm," a cigarette dipped in the liquid hallucinogen PCP. He said he was shot a second time by Brown. On that occasion, he was hit three times. After recovering, he said, he moved to Norristown and a short time later was visited by Lewis who told him. "You don't have to worry about that boy no more."
Lewis has testified that he shot and killed Brown on Savage's orders because Brown had killed a drug dealer named "Pumpkin" who was a close friend of Savage's. The Brown murder is one of 12 listed in the case.
The defense wrapped up its first day by calling Crystal Copeland, Kaboni Savage's longtime girlfriend, to the stand. The couple have a 13-year-old daughter named Siani.
Copeland, who said she has a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Temple University, said she is a school teacher, but did not say where she taught. She said he has been with Savage since 1995, but acknowledge that since 1999 he had spent most of his time in jail.
Her testimony was also designed to refute and undermine Lamont Lewis.
Lewis had testified that he was called to the Savage family home on Darien Street by Kidada on Oct. 8, 2004, to take a phone call from prison from Kaboni Savage. That phone call, he said, set the arson in motion. Kidada, he said, later told him what her brother wanted him to do and showed him where Coleman's mother, Marcella, lived.
Around 6 a.m. the next morning, Lewis said, he and Merritt tossed gas cans into the home, resulting in an explosion and fire that left the six people dead. He said neither he nor Merritt knew there were children in the house.
But Copeland testified that she was also in the home on the day Kaboni Savage called. She said Lewis spoke with him on the phone, and then left the house. She said Kidada did not have a conversation with Lewis, nor did Kidada leave the house any time later that day.
While the defense has not offered an explanation for why Lewis would firebomb Coleman's home, it is attempting to raise questions about his version of the events leading to the arson.
Copeland also testified about a June 2006 phone call that was played for the jury in which Savage appeared to reprimand and threaten her for going out to a party and to nightclubs while he was in jail. Copeland described the conversation as "playful" and said she never considered Savage's warnings about having her followed a real threat.
"It was a playful call," she said. "It wasn't a serious conversation."
She also dismissed other conversations, referred to during a prosecution cross-examination, in which Savage allegedly told her, "They would be reading your obituary in the paper" and, "Your daughter would be wearing black" if she ever left him.
Defense attorneys are expected to conclude their portion of the case today. Brief prosecution rebuttal testimony could come on Wednesday, setting the stage for closing arguments either later this week or, more likely, starting next Monday.
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net.