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Ending witness intimidation should be a priority of Maryland lawmakers | COMMENTARY

Maryland's strict standards has made it hard to prosecute people for witness intimidation.
Maryland's strict standards has made it hard to prosecute people for witness intimidation. (Dreamstime/TNS)

It is time for the code of silence that exists in Baltimore to end. For far too long, residents have been too scared to come forward and tell police what they know about crimes. This stop-snitching culture has hindered police investigations, made residents hostages in their own neighborhoods and left far too many criminals on the street.

Lawmakers could potentially disrupt this status quo of fear with several bills introduced in this year’s General Assembly that would offer better protections for witnesses scared of retaliation from criminals, or the associates and family members of bad guys. No one wants to end up the next victim.

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The different pieces of legislation call for making witness intimidation a violent crime, restricting the release of personal information of some victims and expanding the so-called hearsay clause, which allows out-of-court testimony to be used at trials. Some of the legislation would also allow this non-traditional testimony to be used in all crimes, and not just violent crimes and drug felony cases as is now permitted under current law. All of these provisions could offer more protections to those who find the courage to testify against ruthless criminals.

Baltimore by far has struggled the most with witness intimidation and how it affects cases, but isn’t only place where the problem exists. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has said that more than one-third of cases in her office are dropped because of uncooperative witnesses or victims.

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We appeal to lawmakers to follow through and make this issue a priority. We are hopeful of the prospects, given that taking on witness intimidation has garnered bi-partisan support and that of top leadership, even if the solutions on the table differ.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s bill, filed by Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson on behalf of the administration, expands the criminal cases in which the hearsay exception can be used to all crimes. It also calls for an increase in penalties for witness intimidation resulting in death or serious physical injury. Both are provisions that we could support.

But there are also problems with the hearsay exception itself that need to be addressed to truly make it tough for criminals to get away with threatening people who may testify against them. The law generally prohibits second-hand statements to be used at trial except under drastic measures, such as a witness being scared off. There is also a standard of “clear and convincing evidence” that must be presented to the judge to prove a defendant engaged in intimidation. This standard has been hard to meet, and prosecutors have found it virtually impossible to prosecute anybody under the strict standards.

Legislation introduced by Delegates Erek Barron, a Prince George’s County Democrat, and Shaneka T. Henson, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, addresses the clause head on by lowering the burden of proof on whether there was intimidation or not and reducing the requirement the statement must meet to qualify as an exception. (The bill was cross-filed by Sen. Susan C. Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat). The bill would also align Maryland law with that federally as well as what has been adopted in 42 states and Washington, D.C. If it works for all of these other places, it should be good enough for the state.

The bill is supported by Ms. Mosby, and Mr. Barron said he is working on the legislation with the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association.

Changes in the law dealing with witness intimidation are long overdue. Legislation passed in 2005 pushed by Gov. Robert Ehrlich and former Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy was severely weakened by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Del. Joseph F. Vallario, Jr., apparently thinking like the defense attorney he was, watered down the bill so much that it has been of little use in the past decade and a half.

The way the law is currently written is undermining the ability to prosecute cases and keep criminals behind bars where they belong. No one in their right mind would testify under the penetrating stare of the accused or knowing they could lose their life as a result. We can no longer allow witnesses to be harrassed, threatened and even killed by criminals who are practicing their own sick vigilante justice. It is time we end the culture of fear.

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