ANNAPOLIS – The governor and the House Judiciary chairman broke their deadlock on a witness intimidation bill Wednesday that enabled the measure to get out of committee and onto the House floor before Monday’s scheduled General Assembly adjournment.
The compromise addressed the constitutionality issues raised by the bill’s “hearsay” provision: It allows statements by intimidated witnesses to be used in court without their being present.
The Judiciary Committee approved the bill, and it is expected to be voted on by the full House this morning.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s bill makes it a felony to threaten or to solicit another person to intimidate a potential witness or victim of a crime. It would boost the penalty from five to 20 years in prison and impose a maximum $5,000 fine.
Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, had pocketed the bill as originally presented, arguing it tramples a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights. It allows the government to introduce evidence without allowing the defendant to question that witness if the defendant has been proven responsible for the witness’s inability to testify. It is applicable only for violent crimes and drug dealing.
Ehrlich briefly visited Vallario before voting to discuss the compromise, and while he would not relate the details of the discussion, urged reporters to watch the voting session.
“We began from polar opposites,” Ehrlich said. “We do believe we have acted in good faith.”
The governor and Vallario, a defense attorney, had previously said that the other side was immovable on the bill, but Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery, helped broker a deal to move the bill.
“I didn’t come around. The governor and the rest came around,” Vallario said. “I’ve never been opposed to the criminal portion of the bill . . . strongly in favor of it.”
The changes more tightly restrict the use of hearsay and prohibit hearsay from being used to prove hearsay.
“We don’t want hearsay bootstrapping hearsay,” Simmons said in an interview before the vote.
In order to introduce “hearsay” testimony, the statement must be signed by the witness, according to the changes and in keeping with a rule pending before the Court of Appeals.
“I’m very happy with the bill as it is now,” Vallario said. “The most important thing is the hearsay exception is reduced to being in writing.”
During the committee meeting, several delegates offered changes to the bill, but only small technical changes to correct errors in drafting were made. All delegates promised to adhere to the agreement between the governor and the chairman of the committee.
Only Delegate Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore, dissented from the committee vote, saying the bill does nothing to protect witnesses, but only assists in convictions.
Per the agreement, the committee voted to conform the Senate bills to the House bill so that the bills will not get caught up conference committee. The chairman also said he there would be no delay in sending the bill to the House floor.
“This bill is about prosecution of domestic terrorism,” Simmons said at the meeting. “This bill admittedly will make it a lot easier to prosecute those people who are engaged in heinous activity.”