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Standoff Ends On Witness Intimidation

House Panel Leader, Ehrlich Reach Deal

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page B01

A weeks-long standoff between Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and a powerful House committee chairman ended yesterday as Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. allowed legislation aimed at combating witness intimidation to come to a vote in his committee.

The bill, a key piece of the Republican governor's legislative agenda, easily passed the Judiciary Committee after a compromise was reached earlier in the day. Supporters of the bill said the deal significantly weakens the measure, but they said they would vote for the measure because it still addresses the problem.

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"Many of us would have liked to see [the bill] be even stronger," said Herbert H. McMillan (R-Anne Arundel). "But I think we've taken a step in the right direction."

For weeks, Vallario (D-Prince George's) has suggested he would not allow the measure to come to a vote, citing his objection to its so-called hearsay exception.

Ehrlich's bill would have permitted statements from witnesses who did not appear at trial to be entered into evidence -- a measure designed to eliminate the incentive to scare witnesses from testifying.

Vallario and others were concerned that allowing such statements would make it easy for false accusations to lead to convictions and would violate an accused person's constitutional right to confront an accuser in court.

The measure approved yesterday still contains the hearsay exception, but only in limited circumstances and under much stricter guidelines than the original bill.

"The governor's bill is much broader and, by accepting this, the governor gave up much," said Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), who brokered the compromise between Ehrlich and Vallario.

The bill also increases penalties for witness intimidation.

Under the deal struck, Vallario agreed to allow his committee to vote on the bill and Ehrlich agreed to the watered-down wording. Vallario said the bill would be on the House floor today. House leaders have said they expect an overwhelming majority to vote for the measure before the legislative session adjourns Monday.

Committee chairmen have immense latitude to hold up bills, and Vallario has long been known as being particularly fond of not allowing votes on measures he dislikes.

Asked Tuesday when he would let the witness-intimidation bill come to a vote, Vallario responded: "The 10th," and then he smiled. "The 10th of never."

But he faced immense pressure on the witness-intimidation measure, which has broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) visited Vallario at least twice in the past week, and Ehrlich aides also were frequent visitors.

Ehrlich repeatedly railed against Vallario at media events, urging him to let the measure come to a vote.

The governor, along with a half-dozen aides, swept into the offices behind the Judiciary Committee hearing room yesterday just before the bill was going to come to a vote.

Ehrlich and Vallario spent 20 minutes behind closed doors before they emerged smiling.

"We do believe the chairman's been acting in good faith," Ehrlich told reporters shortly afterward. "However, this is an issue of overwhelming importance."

The Senate already has passed a similar measure. Ehrlich said he expected there to be "one or two remaining issues" to be worked out in conference committee.

Prosecutors, especially in Prince George's County and Baltimore, say the absence of key witnesses at criminal trials has become an epidemic. Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy has appeared repeatedly in Annapolis this year, wielding copies of a now-infamous CD entitled "Stop Snitching," which contains footage of young men threatening to harm "snitches."

"They are domestic terrorists every bit as much as Timothy McVeigh," Simmons said in an interview, referring to defendants who threaten criminal witnesses.

The compromise reached yesterday allows for hearsay evidence only if the testimony is recorded or written down and only after a judge rules that it is admissible. Under Ehrlich's legislation, many more instances of hearsay evidence would have been permissible.

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