The ongoing Darrent Williams murder trial has been filled with revelations about the continuing dangers of gang life that may come as a surprise to many people -- but not to the Reverend Leon Kelly.
As the executive director of the Open Door Youth Gang Alternative, he's spent a quarter-century fighting against the sort of gang culture that's surfaced throughout testimony against Willie Clark, the alleged Tre Tre Crips member accused of killing Williams, a Denver Broncos cornerback, early on New Year's Day 2007. With that in mind, the decision thus far by two witnesses called by the prosecution -- Kataina "Markie" Jackson-Keeling and Mario Anderson -- to go to jail rather than testify makes perfect sense.
According to Kelly, "You just have to think about something that was said many years ago: Some would rather be tried by twelve than carried by six."
In an attempt to put the trial into context, Kelly says, "People have got to understand that this is going into the third week of the trial, but this is the third year since it happened. People are feeling things are finally coming to a head, but it's been building up, and there have certainly been words, murmurs of thoughts, going throughout the hood over this period of time about what would happen. And people are thinking: How much time can you get for contempt of court compared to what some people think of as a death sentence?
"It stands to reason. One of the strengths the gangs have is intimidation, and within the three years since this happened, it's been a major concern within the hood."
At the same time, Kelly feels that loyalty to gangs by its members is often overstated, as witnessed by the decision of Daniel "PT" Harris to make a deal with prosecutors to testify against Clark in exchange for a reduced sentence in another case against him.
"You look at certain ones who are looking at doing life or spending a certain amount of time in prison," he says. "It's one thing to do something when you're getting high or sitting back and kicking it with each other. But then it gets down to the reality of it's either you or them. And you start entertaining those thoughts of, 'What are my options?'"
As a result, Kelly feels gangs have gotten more aggressive when it comes to punishing those who are perceived as whistleblowers.
"You just don't snitch -- so when you see what's going on with Kataina and Willie Clark, it serves notice to some of these youngsters about what can happen, just like with Marshall Fields and Vivian Wolfe" -- who were murdered in 2005 before they could testify in a trial. "I've had folks say, 'You want me to be a good Samaritan. But I'm not just concerned about my safety. I'm concerned about the safety of my family as well.' And that's a legitimate concern. You don't have to look very far to find gang members who've been killed because they chose to speak on things."
Another example of this phenomenon: In 1996, Kelly advised a young man named Darryl Givens to speak to Orlando Domena, a gang leader, about whether he should testify at a trial or not. Givens came away from the conversation feeling he'd been given permission. "He chose to testify because he thought he had a pass," Kelly notes. "And he ended up with three bullets in his head."
Could the publicity generated by the high-profile Williams trial help loosen the grip gangs continue to have in large parts of the city -- or at least generate more resources to use against the problem? Kelly doesn't predict a breakthrough.
"People here are reactionary-type people," he says. "This is my 25th year of dealing with this, and I've seen the trends and been on the roller coaster -- up and down, up and down. There are people who know gangs exist, but they're not effected by it. Something major has to happen to get them to notice. And since Darrent Williams died, there have been a number of other gang-related cases that haven't even surfaced as far as the mindset of the public is concerned. And if Darrent Williams wasn't who he was, we wouldn't be getting this kind of focus on this case, either."
At present, Clark's attorneys are presenting evidence that conflicts with assertions made by the prosecution involving vehicles, their client's whereabouts at the time of the shooting and more -- and anyone who looks upon such efforts as doomed to failure are being naive, Kelly believes.
"I can speak firsthand from what happened with my nephew," he says. "He was shot eight times and killed, and we knew the case we had was a slam dunk. We even had survivors who lived through the massacre on the jury stand saying, 'He's the one who shot me.' But the defense put just a little doubt in one person's mind on the jury, and in my nephew's case, the kid was acquitted. That's the chess game these folks are playing."
Even so, Kelly is doing his best to show compassion to everyone involved in the tragedy.
"My thoughts go out to families on both sides," he says. "I know Willie's grandma. She worked for years to raise him and did the best she could. And on the other side of it is Darrent's mom; her son is gone. So people have got to understand that it's not just the one at the defense table or the one in the grave. The ripple effects go a long way.
"God is the final judge, and Willie knows what he did. But at the same time, I wasn't in that SUV with him, and neither was the defense or the prosecution. So I just hope out of all of this, it will send a message to all these little youngsters that if this is the kind of life they choose to live, these are the choices they're going to be making. Whether you're Willie Clark or Daniel Harris, these are the things you're going to be up against. And in the end, it will be about preservation. Either you or me."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.