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Repeal urged of lifetime testimony ban for perjurers

Administration official vows bill will pass after previously being held up in House committee

ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland General Assembly must repeal the state’s lifetime ban on convicted perjurers from testifying in court because it enables violent criminals to prey with impunity on victims who were caught lying in the distant past, the Hogan administration and a Democratic senator told legislators Tuesday.

Maryland’s “scarlet ‘P’” of perjury means that prosecutors cannot present and judges and juries can never hear the testimony of some victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, crimes in which the victim is often the only witness, said Christopher B. Shank, executive director of Gov. Larry Hogan’s Office of Crime Control & Prevention.

The prohibition on testimony from past perjurers is a “historical vestige” that gives some violent offenders “immunity” from prosecution, Shank told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee during a hearing on legislation to repeal the ban.

“I don’t think we should be in the business” of preventing crime victims from testifying, Shank added.

Sen. Susan C. Lee, the bill’s chief sponsor, added that convicted perjurers should not be rendered powerless to exercise their right to present testimony against those who later harm them.

“Justice cannot be served [when] victims are made voiceless,” said Lee, D-Montgomery and a member of the committee. “No one should be victimized due to the legislative failure to repeal this law.”

If the past is prologue, the repeal effort will face little opposition in the Senate, which approved a similar measure in 2012. That bill, however, failed to clear the House Judiciary Committee.

Shank said he will “prevail” this year on the House panel’s chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, to get the bill out of committee and to the House floor.

Vallario said Tuesday that he would reserve judgment on the bill and let the committee process run its course.

“That’s what bill hearings are for,” he said.

If the repeal effort succeeds, convicted perjurers will be permitted to testify in court – and defense attorneys will be able to cite the perjury conviction to impeach the witnesses’ credibility, Shank said.

“I see this as an issue of administrative justice: making sure that victims of crime have an opportunity to participate,” Shank told the Senate committee.

One of three states

But Sen. Robert G. Cassilly said he was undecided about repealing the lifetime ban due to the societal importance of ensuring that people tell the truth when they testify in court.

Courtrooms are where “we try to correct those wrongs that have been committed,” added Cassilly, R-Harford and a committee member.

“There’s something insidious about that” lying on the stand, he added.

Cassilly also voiced concern about barring perjurers from testifying if they become crime victims, however, saying they are “sort of like the easy prey because they can never testify.”

Russell P. Butler, executive director of Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, told the Senate committee he knew of at least three recent cases in which a victim was barred from testifying due to a past perjury conviction.

Butler called on legislators to repeal the lifetime ban on testifying, noting the perjury conviction would remain a matter of public record and could be used by defense attorneys to impeach the witnesses’ credibility.

“You [defense counsel] can impeach for perjury forever,” Butler said.

Dorothy J. Lennig, legal-clinic director at House of Ruth, also pressed the Senate panel to repeal the lifetime ban, saying she too knew of instances when a judge declined to permit convicted perjurers to testify in domestic-violence cases.

Lee’s repeal measure is Senate Bill 150.

Shank has submitted an identical measure to the General Assembly, Senate Bill 82.

Aside from Maryland, Mississippi and Alabama are the only states that bar people convicted of perjury from testifying in court unless they themselves are on trial.