Jessamy organizes push for witness law

Key delegate concerned about hearsay evidence in intimidation cases

General Assembly

March 09, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz and Sumathi Reddy | Julie Bykowicz and Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

Fearing that witness-intimidation legislation may again wither in Annapolis, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has asked city community and church leaders to assemble in support of it this morning at the State House.

This week the state Senate roundly approved a bill aimed at curbing witness intimidation by increasing penalties and allowing some out-of-court statements by intimidated witnesses to be used as evidence at trials. But a similar measure in the House of Delegates is lingering in the Judiciary Committee, which killed it last year.

"There are a lot of people saying they want their voices heard on this issue, and their voices are being silenced the same way our witnesses are being silenced," Jessamy said.

In a letter that she e-mailed yesterday to about 500 people, Jessamy said she has learned that the legislation, crafted for the second year by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, "may not be brought to a vote in the House Judiciary Committee because [Del. Joseph F.] Vallario ... opposes it."

Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, has expressed reservations about the bill but declined Monday to say what he was planning to do with it. More than 100 delegates have co-sponsored the legislation.

Vallario and some other committee members have expressed concerns about a provision that would allow into evidence an absent witness' incriminating statements if prosecutors can demonstrate to a judge that the defendant intimidated that witness.

Criminal defense attorneys strongly oppose this so-called hearsay exception, saying it infringes upon a person's constitutional right to confront his or her accuser and to challenge as hearsay statements by a witness who does not appear in court.

Courts across the country, including in Maryland, have long acknowledged that a defendant forfeits those rights when he or she tampers with a witness. Ehrlich's bill would make that concept law - as the federal government and at least seven other states have.

Ehrlich's legal staff has narrowed the exception to make it more palatable to legislators.

The version of the bill that the Senate passed by a 44-3 vote Monday requires judges to use a higher standard of proof than what was originally proposed before making a hearsay exception for an intimidated witness.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, worked with Ehrlich's staff on an amendment to the House bill that also would include a higher standard of proof. His amendment would also restrict the hearsay evidence a judge could consider at a pretrial hearing when determining whether the defendant intimidated a witness.

"The problem I had with the governor's bill is that it cast a much wider net than is necessary," said Simmons, who appeared skeptical at a hearing on the bill last month.

Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and Judiciary Committee member, said he expects that if Vallario brings the governor's bill up for a vote, the amended version would make it through committee.

But first Vallario will have to allow it to come up for a vote.

"If this bill fails, it should fail because the delegates don't like it," Jessamy said, "not because one person decided it should not be called for a vote."

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