Witness bill gets clergy support


The legislative effort to combat witness intimidation in Maryland is drawing support from a potentially powerful group: African-American ministers in some of Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods.

"Good people are scared. The law does not protect them. Instead, it benefits the criminals," said the Rev. Iris Tucker, pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church. "The criminals continue to take another street, take another neighborhood. Soon, they will have our city."

Her church is near what she calls a "constant and terrible reminder" of the effects of witness intimidation in Baltimore.

Knox Presbyterian Church stands cater-corner from the Dawson family home in East Baltimore's Oliver community.

A drug dealer firebombed the three-story rowhouse in October 2002, killing the parents and five children asleep inside. Angela Dawson had routinely called the police to report drug activity.

Saying they were standing in place of congregation members too intimidated to speak up, Tucker and four other ministers from Baltimore- and Washington-area churches traveled to Annapolis last week to support Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s witness-intimidation bill.

The measure would permit some statements by intimidated witnesses to be used in court even if the witnesses are not present. It also would increase the maximum penalty for witness intimidation to 20 years in prison.

Jervis S. Finney, the governor's legal counsel, said Ehrlich believes the ministers' "commitment and vocal support has advanced the cause of witness-intimidation reform to a significant degree."

On Tuesday, Tucker presented the governor with a letter signed by 16 Maryland clergy members who favor his plan. At a news conference before a Senate committee hearing on the bill, Tucker gave a sermon-like speech about the culture of intimidation, which she said is plaguing her church's neighborhood.

The Rev. Constance C. Smith, who also was in Annapolis, said she advises her congregation at Eastern United Methodist in East Baltimore to "follow the truth, wherever it may lead." But she said she warns them to be careful when doing so.

"We're called on to make a witness," she said. "But we're called to do it safely."

Smith said she encourages people to report criminal activity, but she said she tries to help keep them anonymous. She allows them to use the church phone and, in some cases, she calls the police for them.

She and other ministers across Baltimore said they have been trying to restore the idea that the church is a sanctuary - a place where the community can come together to pray for peace on the city's violent streets.

They said they're weaving themes of courage and integrity into their sermons and talks to youth groups.

The Rev. Dellyne Hinton said her Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church at Etting and Dolphin streets on the west side is "trying to be a beacon on the corner."

The historic church stands among low-income housing in an area where Hinton said crime is routine.

She said she spoke to members when the now-infamous DVD Stop Snitching hit the streets a few months ago. The documentary, made notorious by the brief appearance of Baltimore native and professional basketball player Carmelo Anthony, carries the message that those who witness crimes better keep their mouths shut.

"We're trying to stand in opposition to what we see in the community," Hinton said. "But there is real concern about how involved you get in a neighborhood."

Ehrlich's proposed legislation could allay the fears of would-be witnesses, Tucker said, by "taking away the incentive for intimidation."

The governor's bill appeared to have strong support in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, but it could face opposition in the House Judiciary Committee.

That committee killed a similar Ehrlich bill last year amid questions from its chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, about its constitutionality.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who has been pushing for Ehrlich's bill, said she welcomed the ministers' involvement in advocating for the legislation.

"Especially in African-American communities, the church is an integral part of individuals' daily lives," she said. "If we do anything that will impact those communities, we must have the support of the faith-based community."

Both she and Finney said they hoped that by speaking out against witness intimidation, the ministers would encourage others to step forward.

"Communities," Jessamy said, "value the word of their ministers."

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