Protecting victims, witnesses

August 04, 2005

At a time when Maryland justice officials are trying to figure out how to prevent defendants from intimidating victims and witnesses, the state's Court of Appeals has thrown prosecutors a curve.

Now it falls to prosecutors to devise a way to protect those at risk while preserving a defendant's right to face his or her accusers.

The Court of Appeals ruled in June that a computer "block" on the names and addresses of victims and witnesses should be removed.

That allowed them to be searched on the Internet, which meant that someone looking for that information need not even go to the clerk of court's office.


Maryland state's attorneys are looking at complying with the state's order by having victims and witnesses sign a statement asking that their identifying information be shielded.

Witness and victim information would then be sent to the state's attorney's office, but not included in the court record.

Other proposals include petitioning every judge in every case to ban release of identifying information.

Both of these seem to be half-measures that would, in the first case, make the court record incomplete and, in the second, encourage judges to defy the Court of Appeals.

Why not handle sensitive information in this way: Make it available to all, but require anyone seeking it to file a Freedom Of Information Act request.

In that way, those filing FOIAs would be on the record - and prime suspects if witnesses or victims were harmed. It would also preserve press access, which is important so journalists can verify that defendants aren't being convicted on the testimony of witnesses whose indentitites can't be verified.

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