Jessamy decries intimidation bill

City's chief prosecutor says compromise reached by House, governor is `a toothless tiger'

General Assembly

April 08, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore state's attorney who has spent two years fighting for a witness intimidation bill said yesterday that she'd "rather have nothing at all" than the heavily amended version of the bill that lawmakers are now considering in Annapolis.

"This bill is a toothless tiger," Patricia C. Jessamy said at a news conference yesterday afternoon. Flanked by a murder victim's aunt and about a dozen prosecutors who say witnesses are too scared to come forward, Jessamy called a compromise reached Wednesday between the governor and the House Judiciary Committee chairman "cumbersome and unwieldy."

"I'm not going to mislead the public and say that I've been given the tools that I need," said Jessamy, who worked closely with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to craft the witness intimidation bill.

Ehrlich's chief legal counsel, Jervis S. Finney, said yesterday that response from other prosecutors has been positive.

"The tiger may be toothless," he said, "but the tiger still has claws."

The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to the bill yesterday, and the measure could come up for final vote as soon as today. The Senate passed a different version of the bill a month ago.

The legislation increases the maximum penalty possible for intimidating a witness and allows some out-of-court statements of intimidated witnesses to be admitted as evidence even if the witness isn't present in court. That proposed hearsay exception, already used by federal prosecutors, drew criticism from defense attorneys and some legislators who view it as an infringement upon a defendant's constitutional right to confront a witness.

With House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat who opposed a hearsay exception, threatening to kill the bill, Ehrlich and his aides compromised with a series of last-minute amendments in a private meeting late Wednesday.

The governor and Vallario embraced after the meeting and said they were both pleased with the compromise. On a WBAL radio show yesterday morning, Ehrlich called the amended bill "three-quarters of a loaf."

"It certainly sets the law in the right direction," he said. Two prosecutors called into the radio program to back Ehrlich, Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor and Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler. Gansler said the bill is "very good."

But Jessamy, who did not speak on the show, made it clear yesterday that she is not happy.

"Why pass laws just for the sake of passing laws?" she asked. "I'm disappointed in the bill."

Jessamy said the governor's staff knew her position and knew that it had not changed. She said she had not agreed to all of Vallario's amendments.

Baltimore prosecutors' chief concern about the new bill, Jessamy said, is that it restricts the kinds of cases in which the hearsay exception could be used. Prosecutors would not be able to ask for a hearsay exception in second-degree assaults, many domestic and child abuse cases, and misdemeanor drug violations.

Jessamy also said the amended bill does not make it clear whether oral statements could qualify as admissible evidence. And the hearsay exception would be difficult for prosecutors to use, Jessamy said, because the bill now calls for a judge to apply a higher burden of proof when determining if an out-of-court statement would be admissible.

The witness intimidation bill emerged this session as a key legislative initiative for both Ehrlich and Jessamy, who said that intimidation on the streets of Baltimore has reached an epidemic level.

With the release this fall of a homemade DVD called Stop Snitching, popularized by the brief appearance of NBA star and Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony, many legislators also became interested in the issue.

Ehrlich's bill was co-sponsored by 38 senators and passed 44-3 with few amendments. On the House side, 118 delegates co-sponsored the legislation. Once amended by Vallario, the bill passed the House committee 21-1, with Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, casting the only negative vote.

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