Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants to give prosecutors broader powers to go after anyone who intimidates or harms witnesses, the Baltimore Sun reports. The paper says that witness intimidation is a chronic problem that stymies many of Baltimore’s homicide cases. The proposed legislation would stiffen penalties for threatening or harming a witness, and allow some out-of-court statements to be used as evidence at trial.
“Ultimately, witnesses are the most important part of the criminal justice system,” said Wes Adams, a homicide prosecutor in Baltimore who worked on the bill. “Unless we take steps to protect our witnesses, the whole criminal justice system will crumble.” The bill is scheduled for a state Senate committee hearing Wednesday.
Defense attorneys complain that the bill would strip a defendant of the right to cross-examine a witness and may be unconstitutional.
The bill would increase the penalty for intimidating a witness in a felony case to a maximum of 20 years; allow authorities to separately charge someone with soliciting another person to threaten or harm a witness or court officer; allow an out-of-court statement from a threatened witness to be admitted into evidence if that witness cannot appear at trial; put all juveniles, age 16 and older, in the adult justice system if they are charged with intimidating a witness.
Adams, the homicide prosecutor, said that in 90 percent of his cases, witnesses are afraid to testify or lie on the stand. “If this [bill] passes,” he said, “it could be a powerful piece of legislation.”
Law Prof. Michael Millemann of the University of Maryland School said the legislation is “probably unconstitutional.” “The goal is laudable, but there are too many problems with this approach,” he said said. “The system will encourage people to be unavailable for trial and encourage police not to find them.”