– Governor Rod R. Blagojevich today acted on legislation that will allow the courts to admit a statement from a witness who was intentionally murdered by the defendant if they determine the murder was to prevent the witness from testifying against the defendant. With support from the bill sponsors, advocates and prosecutors, the Governor used his amendatory veto power to give the act an immediate effective date.
Governor Blagojevich took action at the request of the bill’s sponsors. Without the amendatory veto, the legislation would not take effect until June 1, 2009. The General Assembly will now need to act to accept the amendatory veto and so that the voices of the silenced victims can be heard immediately. The General Assembly is expected to act next month.
“Too often, victims of domestic violence cry out for help, but those cries aren’t heard. In the most tragic cases, victims are murdered by their abusers when they reach out for help, and they are silenced forever. Now the voices of those victims will be heard in the courtroom and justice can be served,” Governor Blagojevich said.
Senate Bill 2718, sponsored by Senator A. J. Wilhelmi (D - Crest Hill) and Representative Careen M. Gordon (D - Coal City), and initiated by Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow, is designed to eliminate the incentive for criminals in Illinois to kill witnesses in an attempt to prevent them from testifying at trial. The legislation allows prosecutors to enter into evidence the relevant statements from witnesses who were killed.
“This legislation will clarify the rules of evidence in Illinois and will prevent defendants from escaping justice by murdering witnesses,” State’s Attorney James Glasgow said. “Prosecutors at the federal level, as well as in other states, have been using this rule of evidence for years to secure convictions against dangerous criminals.”
The new law will allow a judge to decide at a pretrial hearing whether the court will consider a hearsay testimony. At the pretrial hearing, a judge will determine if the defendant murdered the witness and the murder was intended to make the witness unavailable for testimony, if the unavailable witness’ statements are reliable, and if justice is best served if the statements will be admitted into evidence.
For the statement to be admissible, the trial court judge must make specific findings that each of the following criteria has been met:
· Specific intent by the defendant to make the witness unavailable by murdering the declarant.
· Reliability of the statement.
· The interests of justice will be best served by the admission of the statement into evidence.
“The ability for one to testify against a perpetrator of a crime is an instrumental element of our judicial system. Criminals should not benefit when they try to stifle our system of justice by murdering a key witness. I want to thank Governor Blagojevich for supporting this bill and giving those who can no longer be with us a voice,” said Senator A.J. Wilhelmi.
This new law is supported by the recent Supreme Court decision of Giles v. California which upheld the common law doctrine called “the forfeiture of wrongdoing,” which states that the defendant forfeits his/her rights under the Sixth Amendment to confront the witness if the defendant has caused the witness to be unavailable. Senate Bill 2718 codifies the common law doctrine to make it enforceable in Illinois. This doctrine has been made into law in more than a dozen other states, including Maryland, California, Connecticut, North Carolina, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont and Hawaii.
“In order to bring justice, courts need to be able to hear the testimony of key witnesses. Unfortunately in Illinois, courts could not hear from many victims of domestic violence, because their spouse murdered them to keep quiet. I thank the Governor for standing up for these victims of domestic violence,” said Barbara Shaw, Director of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority.