Protecting witnesses

July 14, 2004

TASHIERA PETERSON spent the afternoon of her birthday in a Baltimore courtroom, perched on a chair too big for her, recounting an event too horrible to imagine - the murder of her father. She arrived in court despite an alleged plot to silence her, an 11-year-old girl.

The 19-year-old man on trial in the shooting death of Russell Peterson is accused of ordering a hit on Tashiera and her mother to keep them from testifying. But this girl with the braided hair bravely walked into court last Friday, looking like the prospective fifth-grader that she is. Her white-cropped pants, spiffy white sneakers and crocheted poncho of pink, mauve and white stripes stood out against the mahogany hues of the courtroom. She wore a Mickey Mouse watch on her wrist, a medallion imprinted with her daddy's face on a chain around her neck. She had to sit at the edge of the witness chair to reach the microphone. And although she spoke in a child's voice, she testified plainly and with conviction, pointing to defendant DeAndre Whitehead as "the man who shot my father."

This is how Tashiera spent her 11th birthday - a grade-schooler who defied a culture of intimidation that many people older than she have not. Intimidating witnesses has become all too common in prosecuting violent crime in this city. She and her mother testified within arm's length of the man accused of plotting to "pop" them. The problem is, too many witnesses don't or won't show up because they are afraid.

That's why the Ehrlich administration sought earlier this year to pass a law that would preserve testimony when a witness has been threatened or killed. It would have permitted an exception to the rules of evidence that would allow testimony without having a witness appear in court. Federal courts adopted such a rule in 1997, and eight states and Washington, D.C., have similar hearsay exceptions. Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey pushed for another bill that would increase to 20 years the penalty for intimidating a witness, because he says defendants sentenced under the lesser five-year term were likely to receive probation, which put them back on the street and available to harass again.

But both bills died. Meanwhile, incidents of witness intimidation continue to frustrate law enforcement. In May alone, Baltimore prosecutors dropped 13 of 52 shooting cases because witnesses couldn't be found, gave conflicting stories or recanted.

Witness intimidation poisons the criminal justice system and engages others in subverting the process. State lawmakers need to send a message to defendants that they won't profit from this practice. Doesn't the state owe that much to witnesses like Tashiera Peterson?

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