Jessamy joins Ehrlich to urge passage of crime bill

Penalties would be raised for witness intimidation

March 31, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Saying another witness to a crime was gunned down on the streets of Baltimore this week, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy joined Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday to intensify their push for the House of Delegates to approve a witness-intimidation bill this year.

The bill, a key piece of Ehrlich's legislative agenda this year, would increase penalties for witness intimidation and, in some cases, allow courts to admit testimony from witnesses who do not appear in court.

But the proposal is stuck in the House Judiciary Committee, where the chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., has refused to allow a vote.

"I join with the governor here today and will be going to the Speaker of the House asking and begging and doing as much as I can for anybody who believes in justice to bring this bill forward," Jessamy said.

A 20-year-old Baltimore man scheduled to testify next month against a man accused of attacking him last year was shot at least six times Tuesday night in West Baltimore, prosecutors said. Jessamy noted the incident as a likely example of witness intimidation and said the shooting victim is "clinging to life" at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

"This is not an isolated incident," Jessamy said. "It happens on the streets of Baltimore all too often."

Jessamy said the governor's witness-intimidation bill would discourage criminals from threatening or harming witnesses, both by elevating the crime to a felony and by letting prosecutors bring to court pre-recorded testimony from intimidated witnesses.

Opponents say the measure would rob defendants of their right to cross-examine their accusers. But Jessamy said defendants would realize it is better for them to allow witnesses to come to court where they would be subject to cross-examination than try to intimidate them and trigger the exception to the hearsay rule.

Ehrlich said that 118 of the 141 members of the House have agreed to co-sponsor his bill, leading him to believe it would pass easily in the full House. But Ehrlich said he will not press for delegates to petition the bill onto the House floor, a rarely employed procedural move to bypass the committee system.

Instead, Ehrlich said if the bill does not pass, he will ask the U.S. attorney to take on witness-intimidation cases. The hearsay exception already exists in federal courts.

Staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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