- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — The Senate narrowly approved a measure yesterday to allow evidence about a defendant’s past sexual abuse of a minor when the defendant is on trial on a similar charge.

The bill, which passed by a vote of 27-20, would allow a judge to admit the past evidence if it could be proved in a clear and convincing manner.

The measure would require the court to hold a closed hearing to determine whether the evidence is admissible.

“It gives judges the discretion they need to admit the evidence when it’s persuasive and when it really happened,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat. “And it’s something we need to do to protect victims.”

The bill passed by a much larger margin in the Senate last year, by a vote of 46-6. Some senators who previously supported it have changed their minds.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Queen Anne’s Republican, said he voted against the bill this time because he was concerned that “someone who’s innocent gets convicted.”

“We need to get this right, because this bill, as it’s currently drafted and before us today to vote on, says that basically if you’re found not guilty in another case, it can still be brought into this case,” he said.

Mr. Pipkin used the example of a divorce trial in which an angry spouse persuades a child to make accusations against another spouse that might be untrue. He said the measure creates a lower standard for a judge to make the accusations admissible.

Sen. James Brochin is sponsoring the bill and thinks enough safeguards are in place to prevent such a scenario.

He used the example of a stepfather being accused of sexually abusing a girl, then having an older girl in the family come forward to make corroborating accusations.

“If she can prove in a clear and convincing manner that it happened, then it’s admissible,” said Mr. Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

He said 19 states have similar laws.

The bill has failed in the House in recent years, but Mr. Brochin wanted to try again because the past election brought in new members.

“Whenever you have a turnover of legislators, I think you have to go back and give it another shot to see how that dynamic has changed,” he said.

• Gun ban

A bill that would ban assault weapons in the state drew a big turnout yesterday. Supporters called the bill a practical way to protect residents and police, while opponents said it would fail to keep such weapons out of the hands of criminals.

The bill was heard in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. It has the backing of Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, and designates 45 firearms that would be banned, with the focus on rifles. Maryland already has a ban on assault pistols.

The bill would prohibit the transport, sale or purchase in Maryland of any of the listed weapons. It designates “assault long guns” and “copycat weapons” as guns that would be affected. The General Assembly has failed to pass such a ban four straight years.

Sen. Michael G. Lenett, a Montgomery Democrat and a bill sponsor, said such weapons are ill-suited to hunting or target shooting but are “remarkably well-suited to killing a lot of people in a hurry.”

Other lawmakers asked whether the bill would keep the guns away from criminals and how often such guns were used in crimes.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Cecil and Harford counties Republican, said gang members do not abide by the law and would not be deterred from acquiring the guns.

“I’ve never known them to obey the law,” she said, evoking applause from opponents of the bill.

About 130 people signed up to testify.

Opponents, including many wearing at least a sticker or button with a red line through “SB 43,” followed testimony from outside the hearing room because all the seats inside were filled.

Leonard Hubbard, of Tracys Landing in Anne Arundel County, said the bill used “too broad a brush.”

The hearing also drew supporters from the law-enforcement community and a woman whose father, an FBI agent, was killed by a man with an assault weapon.

Dale Miller, 20, testified about how her father, Michael J. Miller, was killed in November 1994 along with Metropolitan Police Department Sgt. Henry J. Daley and FBI agent Martha D. Martinez. Bennie Lee Lawson walked into D.C. police headquarters with a fully automatic MAC-11 and opened fire.

The measure, as proposed, would include a grandfather clause allowing a licensed firearms dealer to continue selling the weapons if the dealer had them lawfully before Oct. 1 this year. A person who lawfully possessed any of the guns before that date and who registered the gun with the Secretary of State Police before Dec. 1 could keep it.

In 1994, Maryland banned the sale and possession of assault pistols, which were defined as 15 semiautomatic pistols.

A federal ban on 19 assault weapons that took effect in September 1994 expired 10 years later.

Critics of the proposed Maryland ban cite the lapse of the federal ban as a reason not to support it.

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