"If we can't get witnesses to cooperate, the entire rule of law breaks down," she said. "If witnesses don't feel safe, they aren't going to come forward. The word on the street has to be that the district attorney has the resources to protect you."
Barrios called his effort to create a witness protection program "a fight for safe streets in our communities."
"We all have a role to play in society," he said. "One of a citizen's roles is to speak up if they see a crime. Then our role as police and prosecutors and legislators is to protect them."
Both proposals also would make it easier for judges to issue protective orders for crime victims or witnesses who feel threatened and make it a crime to distribute grand jury transcripts. Such transcripts often contain detailed information about witnesses and testimony. Defendants would still have access but would be barred from passing them along to gang members or anyone else.
After the trial
At a joint committee hearing last week on Barrios' bill, police, prosecutors and mayors from across the state spoke favorably about the provisions for witnesses.
But the director of a nonprofit youth center and summer basketball program in South End, one of Boston's roughest urban areas, spoke against the bill.
Donovan Walker said the even a witness protection program would not keep people safe. "What happens after the trial?" he asked. "They go back to the old neighborhood?"
District Attorney Conley said that witnesses could either be moved for the length of the trial, which is perhaps when they are most vulnerable, or be permanently relocated. As outlined in Barrios' bill, protection services would include relocation, armed protection or escort, and marked or unmarked surveillance.
Conley also has joined with several local black churches to create a program called Project Strength in Spirit. Victim-witness advocates in the prosecutor's office and ministers try to address witnesses' spiritual needs. And then the ministers show up in court as moral support - and as a counterbalance to the gang members who often sit in support of defendants, Conley said.
Maryland does not have a state-funded witness protection program, but a "witness protection and relocation fund" has existed since the 1950s. The fund, collected from a portion of defendants' court costs, currently has about $600,000 in it, said Ara M. Crowe Jr., the state's attorney's coordinator and administrator of the fund.
The state's attorneys in Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City can tap into the fund as needed, Crowe said. Prosecutors in the larger areas, like Baltimore, can withdraw $10,000 at a time. Crowe said there is no limit to how many withdrawals any state's attorney can make.
Prosecutors across the state used less than $400,000 from the fund last fiscal year. Baltimore, which has more crime and intimidation problems than any other area of Maryland, has asked for and received less than $35,000 this fiscal year.
Jessamy's office also receives about $300,000 each fiscal year, which begins every July 1, from the city budget for assisting witnesses. Most of the money is spent on hotels for threatened witnesses.
`Backward and tragic'
One Maryland delegate said Boston's plan to create and fund a witness protection program makes more sense than Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s witness intimidation bill, which focuses on changes to the law and rules of evidence.
"What we're doing here is backward and tragic," said Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat. "We're just addressing witnesses at the point where they're unavailable for trial, which means they have already been intimidated or maybe even hurt or killed. That's not witness protection."
The recently passed legislation, which Jessamy supported until it was weakened in a House committee, increases the maximum prison sentence for witness intimidation from five to 20 years and allows some out-of-court statements by intimidated witnesses to be used even if the witnesses are available to testify. To use that hearsay exception, prosecutors will have to prove to a judge that the defendant kept the witness away through intimidation or harm.
Jessamy said she pushed Ehrlich's bill instead of a witness protection program because her office already has money to assist witnesses, many of whom she said refuse assistance because they don't want to leave their neighborhoods.
"Since we already have money in place, I thought it was more important to address what we do in our courtrooms as a first step," she sad.
But Jessamy is making plans for the next legislative session, and they include a new focus on witness protection. She said she has been talking to Del. Darryl A. Kelley about creating a bill that would shift witness protection responsibilities and the current fund to the Maryland State Police. She said law enforcement agencies are better equipped than prosecutors to handle intimidation.
She also said she plans to ask Rep. Elijah E. Cummings at a U.S. House of Representatives committee meeting this spring for federal assistance - in the form of money and training - in improving witness protection.
"We'll be talking about this topic for a long time to come," Jessamy said.