With less than a week left in the legislative session, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration renewed yesterday its push for a House of Delegates committee to pass witness-intimidation legislation that has languished in the committee for months.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., who has refused to put the bill up for a vote, remained skeptical at the hearing, though he offered a potential amendment that met resistance from Ehrlich's legal counsel, Jervis S. Finney.
"Governor Ehrlich seeks a vote on the bill," Finney said repeatedly at the hearing. "An up or down fair vote on the bill."
Already passed by the Senate, the bill would increase penalties for witness intimidation and allow some out-of-court statements by witnesses to be used as evidence at trials, a practice commonly referred to as a hearsay exception.
Vallario and some criminal defense attorneys object to that exception, saying it violates defendants' constitutional right to confront their accusers.
Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a committee member and Montgomery County Democrat, worked with the governor's staff on a compromise that would restrict the hearsay evidence a judge could consider at a pretrial hearing when determining whether the defendant intimidated a witness.
Yesterday, Vallario offered another possible change that would allow absent witnesses to give testimony only through written, sworn statements. A rules committee of the Court of Appeals made a similar recommendation to the state's highest court, which will consider it later this year.
After the hearing, Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, said his change, coupled with Simmons' amendment, would look good to the committee. Vallario would not say when - or if - he would put the bill up for a vote.
Vallario, who met with House Speaker Michael E. Busch about the bill before yesterday's hearing, held a similar bill in committee last year. Ehrlich has called upon Busch to pressure Vallario into allowing the Judiciary Committee to vote on the bill, which he believes would easily pass the committee and full House.
Yesterday's hearing was supposed to be a sponsor-only, perfunctory hearing on the Senate bill that already passed. But Vallario allowed three defense attorneys who oppose it to testify and answer questions.
"Now six days before the end of session not having offered anything but stony silence, one person brings in the defense attorney opponents to avoid fair consideration of the witness-intimidation reform initiative," said Finney.
City defense attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr. led the opposition. He called the hearsay provision "absolutely dangerous."
"None of us want to pass any bill ... that makes it easier to convict an innocent person," said Murphy. "What this bill will do is add a greater risk of inaccuracy."
Simmons, who fiercely opposed the bill last year, appeared unsure after yesterday's hearing that a meaningful bill would come out of the committee.
"In the end, I think it's going to be a question of whether the rhetoric prevails or the facts prevail," said Simmons. "I think that public policy requires that we make a small exception for a statement of a person who's been frightened out of testifying.
"I am deeply worried that if we do not produce a reasonable ... witness-intimidation bill that includes a hearsay exception, we will be held accountable."