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'Hearsay' provision rocks House

April 06, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - During his State of the State address in January, Gov. Robert Ehrlich asked the General Assembly for tougher laws against intimidating witnesses who plan to testify in criminal trials.

He displayed a copy of a DVD circulating in Baltimore called "Stop Snitching," a primer on how to scare witnesses into silence - including the use of violence.

Since then, the Senate has approved a tough new bill, sponsored by the Ehrlich administration, that increases the penalties for those convicted of witness intimidation, and allows statements officially made by witnesses outside the courtroom to be entered into evidence in criminal trials.

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It's that "hearsay" provision that has thrown the House into turmoil - or at least the House Judiciary Committee.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, has been sitting on the House version of the bill since its initial hearing. His reason? The hearsay provision deprives defendants of their right to confront witnesses in the courtroom, he says.

On Tuesday, Jervis Finney, chief counsel for the Ehrlich administration, presented the Senate bill in Vallario's committee, which must vote to approve it before the full House can consider it.

Beyond sparking the usual debate on the pros and cons of a piece of legislation, Finney's presentation spawned sharp contention among committee members who haven't been permitted to vote on the issue.

At several intervals during the hearing, committee members, including Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, complained that the legislation was being held up.

Finney emphasized that the legislation had "tremendous bipartisan support," with 118 delegates signed on in support of the House version. "It is not just the governor's bill," he said.

He said the hearsay provision "is presently utilized in all federal courts, in 18 other states and the District of Columbia."

Foes of the bill had "suggested," he said, that the provision could lead to "unfair outcomes" in court cases, but had provided no evidence that it ever had in the courts where it is now legal.

"We would argue that the opponents rely on hypotheticals," Finney said, while proponents relied on court precedent.

Del. Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said if the administration were serious about protecting witnesses, more money would be available in the state budget for witness protection programs. The whole issue of hearsay evidence "is somewhat of a side issue," he said.

Chrys Kefalas, deputy counsel for the Ehrlich administration, said there was $1 million in the budget for witness protection, but argued money was not the problem. "The problem is there is no deterrent" against intimidating witnesses.

Del. Neil Quinter, D-Howard, a co-sponsor of the House bill, warned that by insisting on the hearsay provision, the administration risked losing all the other parts of it.

Shank said that "the other issues are virtually meaningless if we don't have 'hearsay.'"

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