After testifying in a recent murder trial, a witness blames the Valdosta Police Department and an assistant district attorney for death threats he has received.
DeVincent Douglas, 35, of Valdosta, called The Times to complain about the constant aggravation he and his family have experienced since testifying May 2 in the Bernard Sanders Jr. trial. Douglas said he was trying to do the right thing by telling the detectives what he saw during the Nov. 15, 2009, shooting that left Sidney Bivins dead and many others wounded in the Hudson Dockett community.
On the stand, Douglas said he saw the other perpetrators who had guns and were shooting into the massive crowd. He said Sanders was only trying to protect his daughter when drawing his own weapon but was not the individual who shot the Bivins brothers. Douglas also said he was not called to testify but appeared in court on his own to tell what “really happened.”
The shooting occurred around 5:30 p.m., Nov. 15, 2009, after several people crowded around what reportedly began as a fight between at least four individuals. Eleven people, including three small children, were shot during the incident. Sydney Bivins died from his injuries shortly after being transported to South Georgia Medical Center.
While testifying, Douglas said he gave detectives his personal information and reported the events as he recalled them. During cross examination, Assistant Southern District Attorney Brad Shealy referred to Douglas as a previous police informant and questioned him about his criminal record. Douglas admitted to previous charges he faced but said his past had no bearings on the case at hand and no one promised him anything by testifying.
“I was just trying to do the right thing,” Douglas told The Times. “Now that Mr. Shealy has said in open court that I am a police informant, I have been receiving threatening calls. Someone approached my 7-year-old daughter and told her that her daddy would be shot. People ride by my house and show their guns ...”
At the conclusion of the trial, Sanders was found not guilty of malice murder but was convicted on felony counts three and four of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. He was sentenced to 20 years in the Georgia Department of Corrections with five of those years being served on probation.
Douglas said what bothers him the most is that because of his prior convictions, he feels he cannot protect/defend his own family from potential harm without getting into trouble. When asked if he was aware this article could add to his problems, he said, “I want this to go public. Just in case something happens to me, everyone will know why it happened.”
In Shealy’s response to Douglas’ claim, he said:
“It is not the practice of the state to reveal the identities of confidential informants. If we did that, the individuals would no longer be informants and information that could help law enforcement would not be easily obtained. Now, in this particular case, that was not the issue. Mr. Douglas was stated during the Bernard Sanders trial as being an informant because the state could not withhold that information for the following reasons:
— “Mr. Douglas was not an informant in this particular case but gave a statement to law enforcement and the police report had him listed as a CI (confidential informant).
— “In order for him to testify on behalf of his friend, he had to state his name on the stand.
— “He was not called to be a witness by the defense or the state but chose to testify on his own.
— “We had to say what was in the police report as it was stated, if not, we could have been accused of withholding or hiding information from the court which could have later come back on us, and
— “We had to assert the credibility of the witness to the jurors and let them establish if he was believable or not.”
Confidential informants are typically witnesses for the state; however, in this case, Douglas was neither an informant nor witness for the state.
While trying to protect informants, Shealy said, there have been occasions where the informants’ identities were revealed, and that every case is different.
“It’s not black and white as most people want to believe,” he said. “It depends on the facts that are presented. Before going into it, informants are aware of the risks and we (state) and law enforcement try to do all we can to ensure their anonymity. Bottom line, Mr. Douglas did not have to be in court that day and should have known questions about his character or background would come up especially if he was testifying on behalf of his friend.”
Valdosta Police Cmdr. Brian Childress echoed much of what the assistant district attorney said and added that informants have been used many times by the police department. Just like every other law-abiding citizen, they are protected as much as possible by law enforcement. If there is a danger to an informant or citizen that person must contact the police and charges will be filed.
“It is a felony for someone to threaten the life of another,” Childress said. “There are procedures in place to protect informants, but they have to provide as much evidence as they can. We don’t tolerate terroristic threats or scare tactics. These are punishable by law. If I find out anybody has threatened a witness, we will prosecute.”
Both Shealy and Childress said in certain situations where the identity of an informant may possibly be revealed, say a drug case, the two can opt not to go forward with the case.
For instance, if an informant was the only known person to have inside knowledge of a drug-related crime and would be called to testify in court with the only information that could put the accused away — therefore making it impossible to use that informant again — law enforcement more than likely will just continue the investigation until they can find enough information to proceed without using the informant.
Constitutionally, an accused person has the right to face his or her accuser in a case that can potentially damage his or her reputation or lead to prison time, Childress said.
“Thank God, we live in a society that allows that,” the commander said. “That way people will be more reluctant to just walk around accusing people of something they did not do while in secret, especially if the case is, say, murder.”
Calling the VPD’s Crime Tip Line and leaving information about a crime is not the same as being a police informant. The caller is anonymous and can remain that way. This gives law enforcement enough information to start an investigation.
Confidential informants work for the government, often secretly, to gather and provide information or to testify, sometimes, in exchange for cash or leniency in punishment for the informant’s own crimes.