Silenced no more

February 17, 2005

LEGISLATORS considering an Ehrlich administration bill today to combat witness intimidation need to understand that it won't open the door for all sorts of questionable statements against a defendant by witnesses who don't appear in court. That's because prosecutors will have to convince a judge of several factors before any statement can be used against an accused murderer, drug dealer or other defendant.

If lawmakers believe that Maryland judges can't responsibly carry out their duties and properly vet statements that would be introduced under a new hearsay exception, then they should kill the bill. But then they better fire the entire judiciary.

The bill being promoted by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would provide one more step toward safeguarding critical evidence and stemming an increasingly dangerous tide of witness intimidation.

It would allow prosecutors to introduce as evidence statements of witnesses who can't be produced. Such an exception to the hearsay rule has existed in the federal system for 20 years.

And before any statement could be used against a defendant in state court, a judge would have to determine that the witness' absence from court was due to misconduct by the defendant and that the accused's intention was to make the witness disappear.

Today, an increasingly ruthless class of criminals is trying to sabotage the pursuit of justice by silencing witnesses. The governor's bill would provide one more opportunity to ensure that their voices are heard.

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