The ordeal of Patricia Lewis, a South-Central Los Angeles woman whose life was torn apart after she testified about a 1982 street gang murder, has prompted the California District Attorneys Assn. to create an annual Witness of the Year award.
In a Friday announcement timed to coincide with the start of Victims Rights Week, Sunday through May 2, Cecil Hicks, the organization's president and Orange County district attorney, said prosecutors want to give more attention to those "who have demonstrated extraordinary courage and personal sacrifice in testifying in criminal cases."
"The idea for the award arose out of the circumstances of (Lewis') case," explained Gary Mullen, executive director of the 2,000-member prosecutors group. "Anyone who hears the facts of that case would be impressed by her courage. Certainly she should be recognized."
While heading home to fix dinner for her husband on March 25, 1982, Lewis caught a glimpse of Barry Glenn Williams, leader of the 89th Street Neighborhood Family Blood gang, moments before he put a pistol to the head of 21-year-old Jerome Dunn and shot him to death.
Lewis bravely testified against Williams despite suffering what Hicks described as "a concentrated and lethal sequence of attacks, threats and intimidation." Gang members made telephone threats and twice fired shots at her house. In a subsequent Times article about her ordeal, Lewis said the strain of the gang assaults destroyed her marriage and at one point sent her into hiding for 21 months.
"As the sole eyewitness to the murder of a youth, (Lewis) maintained incredible courage and demonstrated a dauntless faith in the criminal justice system," Hicks said. "Her testimony proved absolutely essential to the conviction of a killer."
Williams was eventually sentenced to death and is awaiting the outcome of an appeal in San Quentin state prison. And the attacks against Lewis have continued, the latest one as recently as last week when gunshots were fired in her direction as she walked down the street, according to police.
"I'm very enthused about it," Lewis said in response to the award's creation. "I think that more people will come forth and be a witness to these types of things if they see that people care."
The winner of the first Witness of the Year award will be announced at the association's July conference in Ventura, Mullen said. Nominations are being accepted from throughout the state.