Prosecutors' discovery rule decisions may prove fatal

February 06, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WHEN THE TWO men grabbed Christine Crandall that day, they put a gun to her stomach and declared the end of her life had arrived if she did not cooperate. Trembling and terrified, Crandall handed over all her money and the two men ran off - but not before a neighbor heard their threats and called city police, who arrived minutes later.

The police brought photographs. Crandall looked at two of the pictures and saw the faces of the men who had just assaulted her. The police nodded knowingly. They said these two men had been victimizing people across Southeast Baltimore.

Last month, Crandall was notified by an assistant state's attorney, Daniel Roe, that the two suspects had been arrested, and that she would be the key witness against them. Crandall was ready to testify. Then Roe told her that the defendants had been given not just her name, but her home address and telephone number.

The information arrived like a blind-side tackle that has left Crandall fearing for her safety and attorneys expressing frustration - and apparent confusion - about where to draw the line on rules of evidence.

"This has placed me in personal danger," Crandall, 41, declared in an emotional letter to State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. "There is no justification for providing the home address of a witness, particularly a witness to a violent crime. This thoughtless act has made it most convenient for the defendants or their friends to find me after the trial or upon their release.

"Revealing my home address has placed me - and perhaps my loved ones - in serious peril. Isn't the state's duty to avoid needlessly endangering witnesses? And this situation is a good example of why victims do not step forward as witnesses for the state. ... My potential murderers already have my address."

According to Crandall, when she asked Roe how "the court was going to protect me from being attacked by the defendants," he told her she should talk to the police. Asked about it this week, Roe concurred but said he didn't intend to sound cavalier about it.

"I don't have the luxury of a police watch, or a security guard to monitor and protect my home until the defendants are in jail," Crandall said. "Yet I assure you my life is worthy of that protection."

The problem is this: Under Maryland's rules of discovery, prosecutors seem to believe defendants have the right to such evidence even in cases involving violent crime. And, in a city where thousands of witnesses worry about retaliation if they testify in criminal cases - and, in a city that still remembers the Dawson family, who spoke out against neighborhood drug dealers and were then burned to death in their East Baltimore home - this is a problem that resonates widely.

"I understand fully how [Crandall] feels," Jessamy said this week. "It's been part of my mantra that we've got to protect witnesses. We've had witnesses whose names have been posted on bulletin boards, or on bathrooms walls with threats next to the names. We try to be sensitive to both sides of a case. We know witnesses can be intimidated. We're just trying to work within the rules."

In fact, the state's attorney's office has been criticized - and alleged killers have walked free - because prosecutors tried to limit discovery, and the courts ruled that evidence was improperly withheld. But where is the common-sense line drawn between a defendant's right to a fair trial and the right of a victim, or a witness, to protection?

"That's the issue," Baltimore Circuit Judge John Prevas said. "Giving out this woman's phone number does seem to be overkill." He pointed out that Rule 4-263B of the Maryland Rules of Procedure requires prosecutors merely to "furnish the name and address of each person it intends to call as a witness."

But even giving out the home address, Prevas says, "assumes the defendants won't go out and hurt people, which of course we know isn't always true. In my discovery court, we go over this all the time. The state can claim a motion for a protective order. Most of the time, they don't feel the need."

Yesterday, Court of Special Appeals Judge Joseph Murphy concurred with Prevas.

"Prosecutors don't have to give the address," he said. "All they have to do is furnish the defense enough information about the witness that an investigator can find out what that person's reputation is for truthfulness and veracity. But the exact address can be the subject of a protective order, and it can be based on reasonable fear.

"But, prosecutors saying they have no choice in the matter? No, that's simply not true."

In her letter to the state's attorney's office, Christine Crandall wrote, "Before one more person gets hurt, I urge you to use your position and power to change this dangerous and ill-considered policy."

In fact, the policy already seems to be in place - if prosecutors will read it carefully.

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