Conspiracy of silence

February 16, 2004

LATE ONE night, four men wearing ski masks bust their way into a Baltimore house. They train their guns at a young mother and her 10-year-old son and threaten to kill the boy and his sister if anyone in the family testifies about their drug gang's business. Before the men leave, they rip out the phone and menacingly warn the family not to call police.

Sounds like a scene in the HBO series The Wire? It's not. Threats such as this are chillingly real, the message frighteningly clear: Testify against an accused murderer or a suspected drug dealer and you're taking your life in your hands. State lawmakers have a chance to help prosecutors beat the bad guys at their deadly game. Legislation proposed by the Ehrlich administration that seeks to preserve witness testimony and stiffen penalties for those who threaten, harm or try to kill a witness should be approved without delay.

City prosecutors call it "the culture of intimidation" and it's playing havoc with people's lives, upending criminal prosecutions and letting the accused go free. The evidence is indisputable: In the last year, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy says her office has relocated 95 witnesses for protection. About 90 nonfatal shootings prosecuted in the city were dismissed because of witness problems, the majority involving issues of intimidation.

Witnesses who disappear, recant their testimony out of fear -- or turn up dead -- can mean the difference between a conviction or an acquittal. The loss of critical evidence can determine if a convicted murderer faces a life sentence or considerably less time in prison.

A key aspect of the bill would allow prosecutors to introduce as evidence a statement of a threatened witness who couldn't be found. Defense attorneys say this exception to the hearsay rule would deny defendants the right to cross-examine a witness, but it is identical to a federal rule of evidence that has been upheld in eight out of 11 judicial circuits.

New York and Washington, D.C., two cities besieged by drug-related violence and high murder rates, have similar evidence rules for the same reason.

Often, a jailed defendant asks a friend or colleague to take care of his witness problem. The bill addresses that common practice by making it a crime to solicit such help and setting the maximum penalty at 20 years in a felony case. Young thugs willing to do the boss' bidding might think twice, knowing they could go away for that long.

A troubling aspect of the bill, however, is the proposal to automatically charge as adults 16- and 17-year-olds recruited as enforcers. Why perpetuate their membership in this twisted club? If a teen-ager deserves to be charged as an adult -- and, sadly, that may often be the case -- a juvenile judge is the best person to decide that.

Citizens who take a stand against drug dealers in their neighborhood, who identify the shooter in a corner gunfight, or who witness the murder of a convenience store clerk shouldn't have to pay a price for doing the right thing. They win our praise. They deserve our protection.

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