- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — With Baltimore’s violent crime held up as a showcase of the shortcomings in Maryland’s witness-intimidation laws, the governor and lawmakers from both parties began campaigns yesterday to stiffen penalties for those who interfere with criminal prosecutions.

Similar bills were killed in the House Judiciary Committee last year, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the legislation’s supporters are pushing the proposals early this session and doing their best to attract publicity and to pressure lawmakers for support.

But the swirl of bills still must overcome opposition to a key provision. The “hearsay exception” would allow witnesses who have been intimidated to accuse defendants without appearing in court. Such testimony has been allowed in federal court for the past two decades.

Delegate Joseph F. Vallario Jr., Prince George’s Democrat and head of the Judiciary Committee, blamed legislative deadlock for the death of the bills before his panel last year. This session, he will introduce legislation that makes criminals who intimidate witnesses serve more time in prison and pay higher fines. But he is against the hearsay provision.

“The constitution provides that you have the opportunity to confront the person who testifies against you,” he said.

Mr. Vallario also pointed out a change in the rules that govern the evidence allowed in Maryland courts. The change was approved recently by a committee made up of lawyers and lawmakers but has not yet gotten the necessary approval from the Court of Appeals.

The change in evidence rules would allow witnesses to submit written testimony without appearing in court. Mr. Vallario said that with the rule change, it is not necessary to approve a bill with a hearsay exception.

But excluding the hearsay exception “takes the teeth out” of the bill, said Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy.

Without the provision, the bills don’t attack the crux of the problem, she said. Prosecutors still would have no way of using crucial testimony that is delivered from a hospital bed or through a telephone call. And criminals who intimidate or kill witnesses still would have the payoff of robbing prosecutors of the incriminating statements made against them, she said.

“Why should you be rewarded for taking a witness out of court?” Miss Jessamy asked.

She stood alongside Mr. Ehrlich and 50 other supporters of the governor’s bill at a press conference yesterday. They were backed by Democratic and Republican lawmakers, pastors, county sheriffs, a representative of Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and state’s attorneys.

“This problem knows no political party,” said Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. “There is no ideological divide here. The bottom line here is — it comes down to doing what is right.”

Several of the officials, including Mr. Ehrlich, appeared to grow teary eyed by a rousing speech by the Rev. Iris Tucker of Knox Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. Her sanctuary sits across the street from the home of the Dawsons, the family of seven killed in 2002 in a fire set by a drug dealer. The burned-out home is a “constant and terrible reminder of the effects of witness intimidation in Baltimore,” Miss Tucker said.

“We’re standing to send a message to the General Assembly,” she said.

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