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Baltimore Struggles With Problem of Witness Intimidation

Baltimore, Maryland had 278 homicides last year. On a per-capita basis, its murder rate is three times greater than New York's and five times greater than Los Angeles'. And things are getting worse - the homicide rate this year is already ahead of 2004's. Most of these murders are never solved, because many of the witnesses are afraid to testify.

According to Baltimore city prosecutors 90 percent of their murder cases are damaged because of witness intimidation.

Baltimore's Chief Prosecutor, Patricia Jessamie, has been to Maryland's capital, Annapolis, about a dozen times to lobby for legislation that would allow written statements by intimidated witnesses to be used as evidence, rather than have witnesses come to court to testify.

"Witnesses are afraid to come court. Witnesses are going underground, refusing to testify," says Ms. Jessamie.

The city's top prosecutor says she sees hundreds of cases like this one. "My nephew was killed May 19 2003 and he was with friends who witnessed his murder, knew his murderer and refused to testify because they was afraid," says Ms. McCellan.

Sharon McCellan's nephew, Michael Jones was shot to death in front of his friends. "They told my family. They told me how my nephew died. Why he died. Who killed him. Where the person was at and one of his friends was incarcerated with the guy and after I took this information to the police they said we sorry we can't use it. It's hearsay," says Ms. McCellan.

In other words, a person normally must testify under oath, in person, in front of the accused. A State Senate committee recently approved two versions of a witness-intimidation bill: one contains a controversial hearsay exception. The Chairman of the Judiciary House Committee, Joseph Vallario, killed a similar hearsay exception proposal last year.

"It's a constitutional issue as to whether or not you have the right to confront the witnesses. That's the whole issue, that they could try someone without the presence of the witness against them," says Joseph Vallario.

Like Mr. Vallario, defense attorneys have complained that a hearsay exception is unconstitutional. But, at least seven states and the federal government have one.

"We need a law with some teeth in it. Every day our courts have determined that certain statements...are so reliable and so trust worthy that they have allowed certain exceptions to the hearsay rules. I think the extent of violence that we have on many of our streets is a form of urban terrorism," says Ms. Jessamie.

A new video called "Stop Snitchin" recently hit the streets of Baltimore.

"We got a lot of rats up here we want to expose. There aren't too many of them because we deal with them niggas. We don't really know who the real rats is, but we got a couple of them that we do know, but they ain't around here no more, you feel what I'm saying."

"The DVD where as it was meant to educate criminals on the streets of our city as how to threaten and intimidate witnesses whom they termed as snitchers," says Ms. Jessamie.

"There's too many rats out here."

"If they don't get it today. They going get it tomorrow. If they don't get it tomorrow. They get it next year."

"I have four grandsons that believe in that Stop Snitchin code. Incidents happen in school they won't come home and share it with you or point out their accuser or tell you how they were harmed or hurt because they're afraid of being called a snitch. They're afraid that that's going to ostracize them from other kids in the neighborhood and in school. It''s got to stop," says Ms. Mccellan.

Prosecutor Jessamie says the way to stop it is the hearsay exception.

"It sends a message to the criminal element out there that we're not going to sit idly by and let them to take charge of the streets of Baltimore City or the streets of Maryland," says Ms. Jessamie.

"This law is necessary because...these killings are being done in broad daylight in front of people without any fear of retribution knowing that people are not going to come forward," says Ms. Mccellan.

The witness intimidation bill is still in limbo in the state legislature.