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Bill to exempt ‘sham’ marriages from spousal privilege advances

A bill to exempt marriages formed after a crime is committed from the spousal privilege — a general rule that one spouse cannot be compelled to testify against the other in a criminal proceeding — received a favorable report from a Maryland General Assembly committee Monday.

Del. Robin Grammer, R-Baltimore County, proposed House Bill 64 to close what he called a “loophole” raised by an appellate court decision last year.

The Court of Special Appeals ruled in August that a defendant who married the prosecution’s star witness, apparently with the intent to prevent her from testifying against him at trial, did not commit witness tampering or obstruction of justice.

Prosecutors had argued that the over-the-jailhouse-phone wedding — which took place mid-trial — created a “sham” marriage that should not confer spousal privilege, but the court opined that judges do not question why people got married in allowing them to invoke the privilege. The Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case Jan. 10. Arguments have not yet been scheduled.

Grammer told the House Judiciary Committee at a Jan. 21 hearing that defendants are “abusing this rule” and disqualifying witnesses.

“The case in question, the defendant actually married the witness over the phone from the detention center,” he said. “In my opinion … what you’re actually trying to prevent is situations where they’re being pressured into the marriage.”

Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told the committee she represented a Baltimore County woman whose partner allegedly stabbed her, an incident that resulted in attempted murder charges. According to Jordan, the man married the woman before he went to trial and the woman claimed the spousal privilege and did not testify.

Jordan called the case “a dramatic example of how the spousal privilege law can really be manipulated contrary to justice.”

The Judiciary Committee voted 16-4 to adopt a favorable report of the bill, which will advance to the full House of Delegates for a second reading.

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