Breaking a long-standing impasse, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s bill to crack down on witness intimidation cleared a key House of Delegates committee yesterday and is expected to be on the House floor for a preliminary review today.
Ehrlich announced the surprise development after a brief closed-door conference with his aides and House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the Prince George's County Democrat whom the governor and supporters of the bill have labeled the chief obstacle to passage of Ehrlich's top legislative initiative.
The two emerged from Vallario's office, arms around each other, and Ehrlich proclaimed that they had made "significant progress" and agreed to several changes. The biggest was a more restrictive use of out-of-court statements by intimidated witnesses, a practice commonly referred to as a hearsay exception.
"There was enough ground in the middle to reach a compromise that would get to where we need to be, which is to allow the prosecutors in the state of Maryland to have this additional tool to prosecute the worst criminals among us," Ehrlich said.
But it remained unclear yesterday whether the altered bill was agreeable to Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who has been the driving force behind the legislation.
Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Jessamy, said that Jessamy had yet to see the final document but that the proposed changes the state's attorney saw in the afternoon were unacceptable. Jessamy intends to hold a news conference today.
"She called it a toothless tiger," Burns said. "This is not a tool that she can use."
The House Judiciary Committee voted 21-1 in support of the amended version of the legislation. Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, cast the only negative vote. Ehrlich and Vallario said the compromise calls for no further amendments until the bill reaches a conference committee.
Just before the committee vote, Vallario thanked the governor and his colleagues for helping him through a "tough" process.
"There comes a time when we have to sometimes adjust the law, and hopefully there are built-in protections here," said Vallario.
Changes to bill
The Senate approved Ehrlich's bill with few alterations.In the House Judiciary committee, the scope of the hearsay exception has been the main sticking point in a bill that also increases penalties on witness intimidation. Yesterday's agreed-upon changes narrowed its use, allowing it only if a potential statement is given under oath, written and signed by the potential witness, or recorded electronically or by a stenographer.
Those changes are identical to the recommendations of the rules committee of the state's high court, which is expected to consider them this year.
The amended bill applies to only felony drug offenses and crimes of violence.
Earlier agreed-upon changes require judges to use a higher standard of proof before making a hearsay exception and restricting the hearsay evidence a judge can consider at a pretrial hearing when determining whether a defendant intimidated a witness.
Some delegates criticized Ehrlich for not addressing what they see as an inadequate witness protection program. "We are being disingenuous if we say we are doing this to protect witnesses," Carter said.
But others - such as Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat - said the bill was a "giant step forward."
"We're talking about criminal terrorism" Simmons said. "This is going to help get the terrorists off the street."
After the vote, Vallario expressed relief that negotiations were done, saying he was confident the bill would fly through the House.
"I didn't come around," Vallario said. "the governor and the rest of them came around."