ANNAPOLIS – Witness intimidation is an everyday reality on the streets of Baltimore and Prince George’s County, said supporters of new legislation to up the ante on saavy hoodlums who menace witnesses to avoid serving time in prison.
“As a former prosecutor in Washington, I saw the same phenomenon,” said Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey. “My sense is that in terms of violent crime, we’re way past smoking in the boys’ room and stealing hubcaps.”
Ivey and House bill sponsor Delegate Anthony G. Brown, D-Prince George’s, held a news conference and spoke to lawmakers at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.
The new House legislation would make witness intimidation a felony carrying a maximum 20-year sentence. Now the crime is a misdemeanor with a five-year maximum sentence, and it’s charged only sparingly, said Patricia Jessamy, Baltimore state’s attorney.
A Senate bill also is trying to stem witness intimidation, but that measure makes murder in retaliation for testimony an aggravating circumstance that can be used to win a death penalty sentence.
House Bill 263 prohibits a person from harming another person, threatening to harm another person, or destroying property to silence a witness.
At the hearing, Delegate Luiz R. Simmons, D-Montgomery, couldn’t get an answer as to the extent of the witness intimidation problem in Maryland, but the issue has had a high profile in the area since the Jan. 23 execution-style slaying of Jahkema Princess Hansen, 14, in Northwest Washington, D.C.
Police said the girl was killed because she witnessed a killing and had been interviewed by officers.
In her testimony, Jessamy said last year there were more than 300 shooting cases prosecuted in Baltimore, and about 25 percent, or 90 cases, had to be dismissed due to victim/witness issues.
E. Wesley Adams, a Baltimore homicide prosecutor, said gangs, in particular are adept at the tactic.
Gangs are “extremely saavy,” said Adams, and easily cover their tracks. They know quickly when a witness comes forward, he said.
Brown agreed: “These are dangerous thugs who intimidate innocent people.”
Brown said his bill has 30 Democratic sponsors and the support of as many as 40 Republicans.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich, in his Legislative Initiatives, supports legislation making it a crime to induce a victim or witness to not report a crime. He also supports adding a maximum fine of $5,000 to existing penalties.
At Wednesday’s events, a Prince George’s County man, who asked not to be identified because he feared for his family, told the story of his 17-year-old son, who walked into a convenience story and overheard an acquaintance discussing the excitement of committing a homicide.
Walking home days later from a local recreation center, a car pulled up to the teen, and at least one person inside told the teenager not to testify.
Two of the three people involved were sentenced in juvenile court and are expected to be released soon, which the man said fills him with fear.
Another Prince George’s woman, who also asked not to be identified, said her son was shot multiple times, and as a result lapsed into alcoholism and major depression. He, too, was told he’d be killed if he spoke of his attackers to authorities.
“You need to get this bill passed,” the woman said, so more people will come forward.
– 30 – CNS-2-11-04