Cummings to offer witness protection bill

March 27, 2009|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,liz.kay@baltsun.com

A new bill may make more federal money available to protect witnesses in state and local cases around the country, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said Thursday morning.

He made the announcement in Baltimore, where witness intimidation has been a persistent problem. This week, a federal jury is hearing testimony about the murder of Carl Stanley Lackl, who was killed before he testified in a homicide case.

Retaliation against witnesses has escalated to the point where "it basically can destroy your criminal justice system," Cummings said. "A case can basically disappear overnight."

The congressman said he planned to introduce a bill that would allocate Department of Justice money for competitive grants for communities to relocate witnesses and to provide security. The language would prioritize aid to communities with more than 100 murders annually for the past five years. A total amount has not been specified, but it would be in the tens of millions, Cummings said.

Now, state and local agencies must reimburse the federal witness protection program for eligible nonfederal witnesses, as well as the sheriff's office for security service.

The U.S. marshals office will also provide technical support under this bill, although that agency did not support a $90 million bill introduced last year to create a pilot program, Cummings said.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, who joined Cummings at the morning announcement, said witness intimidation on city streets and in the hallways of the courthouse affects public safety. The news conference about the bill was held in the state's attorney's victim witness services unit, where renovations were completed to provide additional security for witnesses waiting to testify.

"Even this week, prosecutors were working hard to salvage prosecutions" after witnesses recanted statements because they had been threatened, she said.

Last year, the victim witness services unit of the Baltimore state's attorney's office spent more than $179,000 to help 185 families with temporary safe housing or security deposits for permanent relocation, transportation, food and moving expenses.

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