After a loud scuffle in the hallway, three federal marshals wrestled Roderick Howell into the courtroom, dragging him to the witness stand with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Three years ago, the admitted member of Gangster Disciples gave secret grand jury testimony that implicated two accused members of Raleigh’s Black Mob Gangstas, a Bloods-affiliated set from Haywood Street in Southeast Raleigh.
Now he sat in a federal courtroom, an extremely reluctant witness in their murder and conspiracy trial. He put his head down on his knees and ignored attorneys’ questions.
“Mr. Howell,” warned U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III, “you need to answer the questions, sir. Mr. Howell!”
“I don’t know,” Howell said repeatedly. “I can’t remember.”
The first week of testimony against Demetrice “Respect” Devine, the alleged BMG leader, and a lower-ranking general Brandon “B-Easy” Mangum featured accounts from a string of witnesses owning up to past gang crimes, several of them still in prison and wearing jumpsuits on the stand.
Indictments against Devine and Mangum allege years of drug crime around the Haywood blocks and the murders of teens Adarius Fowler and Rodriguez “Re-Up” Burrell, for gang-related reasons.
On Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dena King called Howell, who answered a few questions in monosyllables about his criminal history and plea agreement obligating him to testify. Then he turned quiet.
So King played a recording of his grand jury testimony, in which Howell described meeting Mangum in the visiting room of the Wake County jail and hearing him give a detailed account of Burrell’s murder.
“He told me that, um, it was an order from a high-ranker to eliminate a certain guy due to the fact of drugs,” Howell said on the recording. “He told me that he was ordered to kill. ... They didn’t want him selling drugs on Haywood Street.”
Mangum didn’t say he pulled the trigger, Howell said in the recording, only that he was present. But by doing so, he would be “putting in work” or earning his stripes in the gang.
Then on cross-examination, Mangum’s attorney, Christian Dysart, pounced.
Did this conversation occur in the downtown Raleigh jail or on Hammond Road? What did the jail look like? Were the pods color-coded? Did he remember taking an elevator? How many screens does the visitation room have? How big is that room? How many people can sit there comfortably? Was Howell being housed in a pod with another BMG member nicknamed “Red” who has a reputation as a “talker?” Did “Red” give you all this information?
To each question, Howell kept his head down and repeated, “I can’t remember.”
Dysart: “Is it your testimony that Brandon Mangum gave you all these details in a four by eight (foot) room with all these people around?”
Judge Dever: “Mr. Howell, you have to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
Howell: “What was the question?”
Dever: “Mr. Howell, you can be held in contempt.”
Howell: “I don’t know.”
Later Thursday, Philip Brimage took the stand and told jurors he considered Fowler his “brother.” On the night of his murder on Tarboro Street, Brimage was walking only a few blocks away when he was approached by two other people.
One of them got a call warning Brimage to clear out of the area, which he took to be a message from a high-ranking BMG that things were “about to get hot.” But Brimage declined to name the others after repeated urgings from the prosecutor and judge.
“I don’t want to answer,” he said. “I don’t even want to be here.”
Testimony continues Monday.