Blown hate-crime case

Vandalism: State's attorney's office failed to ensure that key witnesses would appear in court.

January 05, 2001

WHEN LOCAL jurisdictions established programs to protect victims and witnesses before and during trials, they turned to Anne Arundel County.

The Anne Arundel state's attorney's office was the pioneer in comforting nervous witnesses who take the stand.

So it was inexcusable -- and grossly negligent on the part of the state's attorney -- that two key witnesses in a sensitive racial vandalism trial never made it to court Tuesday. As a result, charges were dismissed against a man accused of placing a white hood on the statue of the late African-American legislator, Aris T. Allen, and putting Confederate flags in its hands.

The witnesses had told investigators that John Mathias Exner of Crownsville admitted to vandalizing the statue. They came forward after an $8,000 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the culprit. But State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee should not have assumed that the reward would have been enough to ensure that the witnesses would appear in court.

His office, his staff and his efforts should have been the glue that made the witnesses stick to their story -- and show up in court.

The state's attorney regularly boasts that his victim and witness assistance program goes the extra mile to ensure that witnesses and victims appear. He has called the program a model for the rest of Maryland and other states. But the mishandling of the racial vandalism case suggests the program may have some holes that need mending.

It may be difficult to bring new charges without violating Mr. Exner's constitutional rights. But Mr. Weathersbee should explore every possibility to remedy his blunder in this painful case.

More important, he must do whatever's necessary to ensure this doesn't happen again.

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