by Senator Susan C. Lee, District 16 - Montgomery County
Victims and witnesses of sexual assault crimes must be permitted to testify in court. Sexual assault defendants with a prior perjury conviction maintain the right to testify in their own defense, as they should. However, a victim or a witness of a crime in Maryland with the same record is currently prohibited from testifying. The result is releasing, and empowering violent sexual predators to continue a pattern of victimization over individuals who they now know have officially lost their voice in Maryland’s judicial system.
Sexual assault victims who were ever convicted of perjury cannot testify against their attackers in Maryland, no exceptions. Justice cannot be served when victims who may already be reluctant to come forward and tell their story, are made voiceless in our legal system simply because of our failure eliminate a legal vestige. Justice is supposed to be blind, but not deaf to the voices of those victimized or witness to sexual assaults, or other violent crimes. 48 states allow victims of crimes to testify even if they had a prior perjury conviction. Mississippi notably shares our perjury policy, which dates back to before the Civil War, from a bygone era when all convictions of felonies cast people out of our legal system of justice. Every other felony conviction in Maryland, no longer impedes ones’ competency to testify. If murderers, arsonists and rapists have competency to testify, why not perjurers? Every defense lawyer would bring out relevant character and credibility evidence against the testifying witness, and they undoubtedly would ask the conviction to be considered in the context of the dispute, and for obvious veracity concerns.
It is essential to establish facts with all available information, especially within the specific context a court might find itself. We have enough faith in the judicial system for every other witness, to accomplish this fact finding goal, without the need for blanket prohibition of testimony forever. In conclusion, there is no logic in handcuffing our courts and empowering predators to re-victimize with impunity. Maryland and Mississippi are the only states that remove legal competency to testify from victims of crimes, although, Pennsylvania removes competency for witnesses of crimes.
Every other state legislature has woken up and realized through common sense reason that blanket testimony prohibitions imperils our criminal justice system, and creates targets. This simple legislative fix, removing the prohibition from testifying, would be a step towards preventing victims from being re-victimized in a potentially endless cycle of abuse. During the 2016 session, working with Delegate William Smith, Jr., MCASA, and other partners in the fight against sexual assault, we will overturn this small but important barrier to justice, and the potential re-victimization scenarios it invites. Delegate Smith will introduce this bill in the House and the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention also has introduced a bill. Sexual assault victims and witnesses, should have the right to be heard in court. Together, our efforts this winter will help allow the courts to do what they are designed to do, and remove an outdated rule that stands in the way for certain sexual assault victims’ access to justice.
This article was contributed by Senator Susan C. Lee, District 16 – Montgomery County, member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, former President of the Women Legislators of Maryland, and a devoted advocate to end violence against women in Maryland.