Corrupting influence

December 30, 2005

Three witnesses. Three taped statements to police. Three recantations. One accused murderer set free.

That about sums up the outcome of the recent murder trial of Matthew Troy Johnson, a 15-year-old who was acquitted in the shooting death of a 19-year-old man in an alleged dispute over drugs. Prosecutors took the extraordinary step of jailing two of the witnesses to ensure they wouldn't disappear, but it didn't matter. Once on the stand, witnesses said they had lied, changed their original stories or conveniently forgot. It's a scenario that occurs in Baltimore with disturbing regularity and dismaying indifference.

The violence on the streets has invaded the courthouse, corrupting the judicial system and making it tougher to seek justice. "You'll get yours," "Burn it down," "I know where you live," "It's war" and "We gonna get you" are just a few examples of the threats and menacing asides uttered to victims and witnesses contained in prosecutors' case files. Some who testify have had their own run-ins with the law, which leave them vulnerable to attack on a street corner - and the witness stand. What defense attorney hasn't had an easy time discrediting a drug dealer who has been shot and then testifies against his attacker, a rival drug dealer? The circumstances shouldn't make the victim any less credible, but that's not the Baltimore in which we live. Today's victim may very well be tomorrow's shooter.

A new state law aimed at combating intimidation of witnesses to violent crimes has yet to be tested in city courts. It gives prosecutors some leeway in using witness statements without requiring that person to appear in court. But the new law doesn't cover cases of child abuse, domestic violence and assault, and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is right to want to change those exclusions. If a judge finds "clear and convincing evidence" of witness intimidation, it shouldn't matter if the victim was shot in a robbery or beaten at home.

The intimidation of witnesses remains a serious problem in Baltimore. It weakens prosecutors' efforts to convict criminals and undermines confidence in the system. But changes in the law alone won't resolve the issue. The public must speak out against those who corrupt the system with lies, provocations and worse. It must hold them accountable in the community and in court if this pernicious cycle is ever to end.

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