Testifying at a congressional field hearing to address Baltimore's pervasive witness intimidation problem, Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday that reforming the criminal justice system would be the best way to help people who cooperate with police feel safe.
The mayor called recent state and federal legislative efforts "a vital component" but said that "more effective prosecution and more effective law enforcement" would be a powerful deterrent to witness intimidation.
O'Malley was one of the speakers at the hearing sponsored by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who was seeking local input on his proposals to pump federal dollars into fighting witness intimidation and encouraging local cooperation with authorities. It was held at the University of Baltimore law school.
A spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy called the mayor's comments "short-sighted" and said that a system overhaul is not needed.
"We can't make the criminal justice system better without recognizing the components of the system that make it work so beautifully," said her spokeswoman, Margaret T. Burns. "We have no case when we can't call witnesses."
Witness intimidation - ranging from threatening gestures inside courtrooms to more blatant attacks that leave witnesses injured or dead - is like a plague in Baltimore, Jessamy said.
Jessamy and other prosecutors and politicians have used a locally produced documentary called Stop Snitching, popularized by the brief appearance of NBA star and Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony, as a rallying point for combating witness intimidation.
But the mayor, who is considered the front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, has stayed relatively quiet on the issue. He offered written support of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s witness intimidation bill but did not testify on it before Maryland House or Senate committees. The bill will be signed into law this month.
Instead of discussing Cummings' bills, O'Malley requested that members of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Police and Human Resources demand adequate federal funding for police and prosecutors and insist that federal prosecutors commit to gun cases.
The mayor also railed against poor communications among parole and probation officers and arresting officers, and against a state bail system that he said releases too many violent thugs before trial.
"People are back on the streets immediately after arrest, almost like it's a free pass to intimidate," O'Malley said after the hearing. "It's crazy, and it would not happen in wealthier communities."
Burns said prosecutors dispute the mayor's view of bail. "We can and do regularly invoke no-bail, which we do in almost every homicide case," she said.
Burns said the mayor has not had a conversation with Jessamy about witness intimidation in more than two years and that "perhaps he does not understand what the issue is."
Jessamy, who has had a stormy relationship with O'Malley, lobbied hard this year for Ehrlich's witness intimidation bill, which will increase the possible prison term for witness intimidation and allow a hearsay exception for some threatened witnesses.
Yesterday, Jessamy and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele testified that Cummings' two federal bills would buttress state efforts to address witness intimidation.
Jessamy said that even though her office is allocated $300,000 from the city for witness assistance, such as across-the-city relocation, Cummings' plan would be "true witness protection."
Under his proposal, states could either use the U.S. Marshals Service for protection or be awarded a grant to develop a similar program. Jessamy said she would like to see the Maryland State Police take charge of witness protection.
O'Malley said Cummings' proposals could be helpful but that many crime witnesses simply don't want to be relocated. Steele also said "there is a great hesitancy to enter the program."
But Jessamy said a police-run protection program "would be a wonderful thing to have." She pointed out that even though she developed her office's witness assistance program, "I don't carry a gun." She said witnesses and victims would feel safer under the protection of police.
Cummings said testimony yesterday reiterated the need for his bills, one of which is named for the Dawson family. Seven members of the East Baltimore family were killed in 2002 in a fire set after they had complained to police about illegal drug sales in their neighborhood.
"Some kind of way, we've got to get ahold of this problem because people are dying," he said at the hearing.