There's a problem

March 01, 2006

State lawmakers who don't think witness intimidation is a problem in cases of family violence haven't been paying attention. Baltimore prosecutors can offer more than a dozen examples without much trouble:

A 61-year-old grandmother receives threatening phone calls from the man accused of molesting her 14-year-old granddaughter, the child's father; a woman is assaulted and cut by a former boyfriend who has been charged with burglarizing her home; a man pulls a gun on the mother of his children who has accused him of assault.

The problem is real. And there's no compelling reason against including these types of crimes in a new law that seeks to combat the pernicious influence of witness intimidation. But an Ehrlich administration bill to do just that received a cool, some say hostile, reception in Annapolis last week.

The bill would expand the crimes in which a new hearsay exception could be applied in incidents of witness intimidation. Under a law passed last year and not yet tested, prosecutors can present evidence of intimidation without requiring victims or witnesses who feared for their lives to testify in court. Instead, a written or taped statement would be presented under limited circumstances. The new law also increased from five to 20 years the penalty for witness intimidation - but it applies only to crimes of violence and felony drug cases. Sexual molestation and abuse of a child and some forms of assault are not considered violent crimes under state law.

But why should prosecutors have fewer tools to pursue a witness intimidation case when the underlying crime involves child sexual abuse instead of murder? And why should a spouse who harasses a witness in a domestic violence case face a lesser penalty than a person who threatens a witness in a drug conspiracy?

No matter the crime, witness intimidation corrupts our system of justice. Victims of family violence are especially vulnerable to it. These crimes more often than not involve family members as the prime suspects. Parental bonds and family relationships make it difficult for victims to step forward, but they also make witnesses more susceptible to intimidation. This problem isn't exclusive to Baltimore; Montgomery County prosecutors have had cases where domestic violence victims have been beaten the night before a court date.

Witness intimidation is a serious crime. Prosecutors should be equipped to pursue it aggressively wherever it occurs.

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