After she decided to help investigators with key information in an arson probe, the government gave Margaret Batts $3,800 in moving expenses and $500 in new furniture, and helped her dig out of thousands of dollars of debt to the housing authority.
Should jurors believe what she says?
Defense attorneys raised that question in U.S. District Court Wednesday before Judge Janet Bond Arterton. The lawyers are defending father and son Hector Morales and Hector Natal, who face a total of 11 charges stemming from a fatal fire that killed three people on March 9, 2011 in Fair Haven. The father and son have pleaded not guilty.
Police say Natal set fire to a house at 48-50 Wolcott St. in retaliation for an unpaid drug debt. The fire claimed Wanda Roberson, her niece, and her 8-year-old son.
The prosecution’s case hinges on the testimony of three key witnesses. The first of those three, Margaret Batts, spent Tuesday laying out testimony against the defendants, her neighbors. On Wednesday, she was forced to explain a chart of lies she had told over the course of the investigation, as well as other questions about her credibility.
Over the two days, competing visions of Batts arose: Is she a struggling single mother courageously testifying despite fears for her safety? Or is she a calculating conniver who spotted a chance to make some “easy money” by telling cops what they wanted to hear?
The testimony raised two perennial challenges in criminal justice: In order to protect witnesses and encourage them to come forward, the government often has to offer help; how do jurors then determine how much those benefits influence a witness’s testimony? And when witnesses initially lie to investigators, how do you know when they’re telling the truth?
Jurors first heard from Tuesday, when she testified that she recognized Natal and Morales, wearing masks, at 48-50 Wolcott St. fire moments before it burst into flames. She said she later saw Morales painting his blue van black, after she spotted it at the scene of the fire.
Batts told the jury she didn’t come forward with that information for months after the fire because she was scared of retribution from Natal and Morales, who lived across the hall from her on Poplar Street.
On Wednesday, the defense spent four hours trying to cut away at Batts’ testimony and her credibility. Attorneys for Morales and Natal spent most of the day leading Batts through testimony about the many ways she had lied to investigators, the fact that she had avoided taxes for years, and the list of benefits she received from the government after she began cooperating with the arson investigation.
“Snitches Wind Up Dead”
On Wednesday morning, under direct examination by Deputy U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly, Batts offered this information about her cooperation with federal investigators after the fire:
In June, 2011, three months after the fire, Batts met with FBI agents who asked her what she had seen. She told them nothing about seeing a van.
“Did you tell them the truth?” Daly asked Batts.
“No,” Batts replied. “I was scared.”
A year and a half after her first meeting, Batts met with agents again. “I actually lied to them,” Batts said. “I lied and told them I saw a black shiny van parked on the Poplar Street area and it was running. I said it had New York license plates.”
Finally she went before a grand jury, and, she said, started telling the truth, even though she was concerned about her safety. “Because I was still living near the Morales family and I was scared,” Batts said. “I believe that they were associated with bad people. ... Latin Kings.”
The defense immediately objected, and Judge Arterton ordered that the reference to the gang be stricken from the record. Later Wednesday afternoon, after the jury had left the courtroom, Daly said that Natal has self-identified as a member of the Latin Kings while in prison.
“Snitches wind up dead,” Batts said. To address her safety concerns, the government paid for her and her six children to live for a month in a hotel room, at a cost of a few thousand dollars. Then she was moved to a Section 8 subsidized apartment, with the government covering two months of rent, or $3,800. The government also settled an outstanding debt of thousands of dollars to the New Haven housing authority. And the government gave her $500, which she used to buy two bedroom sets and a table set at thrift stores.
“I Changed My Story”
Michael Sheehan, Natal’s attorney, started his cross examination with questions about Batts’ work history. She acknowledged that she had worked for about 10 years as a nurse’s aide, getting paid under the table. She admitted that she had told the government about her tax violations and had not been charged with any crime.
“It’s fair to say you’ve told a lot of different stories,” Sheehan said.
“At first, I did, yes,” Batts said.
“At second you did.”
“At third you did.”
“Lots, right,” Batts said.
Later, Morales’ attorney, William Paetzold, set up a pad on an easel to make a chart of how Batts’ story had changed over time. Checking with Batts, he entered on the chart the different dates she had spoken with investigators and the information she had given.
On June 9, 2011, Batts told the FBI she’d seen nothing out of the ordinary on the night of the fire. Then on Dec. 12 and 13, 2012, she told the feds she’d seen a “shiny black newer model van” outside 48 Wolcott St. On Dec. 18, before she went before the grand jury, she told investigators that same thing. Then, when she testified before the grand jury later that day, she said that it had been Morales’ two-tone blue van she saw.
“That’s when I changed my story, because I was about to go under oath and lie,” Batts said.
Paetzold wrote a big “L” next to all the times Batts said she had lied. “And now you want the jury to believe that what you told the grand jury was the truth,” Paetzold said.
“It was,” said Batts.
Paetzold then began working to punch holes in Batts’ claim that she was scared of Natal and Morales. She had told the FBI in June of 2011 that she had seen Natal dealing drugs. “Isn’t that being a snitch?” Paetzold asked.
“Yeah, it is,” Batts said.
Batts acknowledged that she was never threatened by Natal or Morales and continued living across the hall from them for nearly two years after the fire.
Paetzold then laid into Batts about the benefits she received from the government after her testimony to the grand jury. She acknowledged that she had previously been living on state assistance and food stamps, among other sources of income.
“The reason you wanted Section 8 housing is because it’s easy money,” Paetzold declared. That’s why you were willing to “throw these guys under the bus,” he said.
“No, that’s not what happened,” Batts said.
The prosecution will get a chance for re-direct examination starting Thursday morning.