House panel questions supporters, opponents of bill on intimidation

Measure on witnesses may have tough road

February 18, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

House Judiciary Committee members grilled supporters and opponents of a high-profile witness intimidation bill yesterday on a provision that would let witnesses make statements, in certain circumstances, without appearing in court.

The scrutiny could signal a tough road to passage for a bill that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is pushing as one of his key initiatives. A similar bill was killed by the House committee last year.

Ehrlich's proposal would increase the maximum penalty for witness intimidation to 20 years and permit intimidated witnesses in some cases to make out-of-court statements that could be introduced in court - known as a hearsay exception.

"Clearly there's a very serious problem, and we have to make sure to address it, but we have to address it responsibly, which means you don't want to convict people wrongly," said Committee Vice Chairman Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, after the hearing.

Supporters of the bill at the hearing included Charlie Wilhelm, a reformed Baltimore gang member and self-described witness intimidator who co-wrote the book Wised Up about cooperating with the FBI, and Sharon McClellan, whose nephew was fatally shot in May of 2003.

But House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. would not let Wilhelm read from his written comments and told McClellan to wrap up her testimony after she brought up statements made to her about the difficulty of passing the bill in committee with a large number of defense attorneys.

There is widespread legislative support for increasing the penalties for witness intimidation. Vallario and 13 other members of the committee are co-sponsoring such a bill - without the hearsay exception.

"I have a real problem with the idea that you can use hearsay," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat. "And it concerns me that ... the judge could basically wipe away the defendant's right of confrontation on this threshold issue because he would allow hearsay to come in."

But Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy; Ehrlich's legal counsel, Jervis S. Finney; and three legal experts defended the hearsay exception as a crucial tool for prosecutors.

Jessamy said the bill was needed to "add some teeth to a law." She said city prosecutors deal with intimidation in almost every homicide case.

While lawmakers and experts grappled over legal arguments, McClellan urged them to shift their focus to the victims such as her nephew, Michael Jones, fatally shot in the streets of Baltimore at the age of 21.

"No one will come forward and testify even though they know who killed my nephew," she said.

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