A plan to give murder witnesses more protection in Florida barely squeaked through its first Senate committee Tuesday, two weeks after House members gave an identical measure unanimous initial approval.
It could have stalled on a tie, if not for Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who said he would “reluctantly” support it.
The legislation — and its House version, HB 111 — would make murder witnesses’ identities confidential and exempt from disclosure in public records for up to two years after the crime.
“I think we need to be extremely careful when we abridge freedom of the press, when we curtail the public’s right to know certain things that happen in our society,” Rouson said.
Proponents, like Miami Democratic Rep. Cynthia Stafford, say the proposal could better help law enforcement seek justice and that offering protection through an exemption in Florida’s public records law could entice more witnesses to come forward who might not be doing so now out of fear of retaliation.
But some committee members questioned whether the proposal actually offers the protection it intends because, they noted, witnesses’ identities would still be shared with the criminal defendant’s attorney and would be released eventually once criminal proceedings begin in open court.
“I have a really big concern that we’re going to give members of the public false hope that somehow by not putting their names down on a piece of paper that they are going to somehow be protected from reprisal,” Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said. “By letting someone believe that their name won’t come out for two years, I think we’re not being truthful to some extent with people who are going to be putting their life on the line.”
Stafford said the proposal mirrors protections given to confidential informants and victims of child abuse, sexual offenses or child human trafficking.
At least six mothers with Parents of Murdered Children told senators about how their children had been slain and yet the killer went free because witnesses were afraid to speak up.
“This bill when I read it, it’s like speaking on his behalf,” said Myrna Williams, a Miami-Dade mother whose son, Antonio Johnson, was killed in 2009. “He was a witness to a murder and they assumed that he said something to the police; he got shot. ... Maybe if this bill had been in existence, maybe his life could have been spared.”
By letting someone believe that their name won’t come out for two years, I think we’re not being truthful to some extent with people who are going to be putting their life on the line.
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth
Several senators said they were moved by the mothers’ emotional stories, but said they were hesitant to endorse a public records exemption like this when rules for criminal court already allow judges to shield witnesses.
“If there was not the language I just described and the ability of the court system to deal with this type of situation, then I would be the first person trying to move something forward,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
“I’m satisfied there are protections in place,” he said, adding that to exempt information from public records, “there has to be a very, very compelling reason and there has to be no other way to accomplish what’s trying to be accomplished — and in this case, there is another way.”
The First Amendment Foundation makes a similar case in renewing its objection to such a proposed exemption. A similar, but broader, proposal failed last year.
Foundation president Barbara Petersen sent letters Tuesday to the bills’ sponsors — Stafford and Orlando Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy — calling the legislation “unwarranted” and “antithetical to our criminal justice system and rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.”
Petersen, who has not yet addressed lawmakers at committee hearings, wrote that Stafford’s and Bracy’s argument for why the legislation is needed — to shield witnesses who fear retribution — “is based on hypothetical concerns and provides no evidence of actual harm that has occurred.”
“Absent concrete evidence, [the bill] simply alleges a reduced likelihood of reporting by witnesses,” Petersen wrote. “Contrarily, many anonymous crime-reporting agencies like CrimeLine and Crime Stoppers, already exist to alleviate any such concerns.”
She added: “We are certainly sympathetic to the concerns raised by those in support of this legislation. ... However, [the bill] contains insurmountable constitutional and foundational flaws.”
Florida police chiefs and sheriffs support the proposal, as do Miami-Dade Schools, the Children’s Trust, and other groups.
Bradley, Clemens and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, were the three senators who voted against the bill Tuesday.
Although it advances, the Senate version faces a high bar to even reach the floor. It still has three more committees to clear; most bills face only three committees.