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Ehrlich deals on witness intimidation bill

April 07, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - With the clock ticking on this year's General Assembly session, Gov. Robert Ehrlich finally struck a deal Wednesday with a House committee chairman to salvage a key component of his legislative agenda.

But their agreement on a bill to stiffen penalties for intimidating witnesses faced unraveling Wednesday evening when the House Judiciary Committee started arguing over specific language.

Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario had been sitting on Ehrlich's witness intimidation bill for weeks because of a provision that would allow statements made by witnesses outside a courtroom to be used as evidence. Vallario held that this "hearsay" provision deprived defendants of the right to challenge witnesses in court. He remained defiant on the issue on Tuesday.

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But by Wednesday afternoon, Vallario and Ehrlich had come to terms, according to Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, who serves on the Judiciary Committee and supported the governor's bill.

Shank said the agreement included three parts:

· The hearsay provision would only apply in crimes of violence.

· Statements that intimidation had occurred would only be permitted when given under oath, written and signed or recorded.

· The defendant must be notified that prosecutors plan to use the statements.

Ehrlich confirmed there was an agreement, but refused to give details before the committee discussed the bill Wednesday evening. "We're making progress," he said.

Once the agreement reached the full committee, a few lawmakers were concerned about whether the identity of witness could be verified in recorded statements, and wanted to change some of the wording.

Worried that any changes would kill the agreement, Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, begged them to accept the compromises.

"The wording was lifted verbatim from what the chairman wanted," Simmons said.

"God forbid that we should mess up the process by trying to make the bill better," replied Del. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore City, an opponent of the bill.

Simmons maintained that the bill was fine as it was. "I believe it's clear," he said. "I believe removing the language emasculates the bill."

There was concern that even if the committee approved the bill, House Republicans would try to amend it to make it conform to Ehrlich's original proposal when it comes up for debate on the House floor.

Shank promised any attempt to change it further would be met with resistance. "If a Republican tries to amend it, I will be the first to get up to oppose it," he said.

The only committee member to vote against the bill was Carter.

Vallario said he was happy with the hearsay agreement. "When it's reduced to writing or it's taken down by a stenographer or recorded, that helps," he said.

"There comes a time when we sometimes have to adjust the law."

Shank called the legislation "historic," and predicted that if it is passed, it would go a long way toward protecting witnesses from defendants who would try to silence them.

Now, Vallario said, the committee needs to consider two Senate bills on witness intimidation, and try to conform them to the House bill.

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