They're banging on the drums again, getting the Glob to serve as the horn of Jericho in the perennial antigun crusade, as usual...
DiMasi to offer an antigang plan
Witness aid and gun laws keys to measure
By Frank Phillips, Globe Staff | January 9, 2006
House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi said yesterday that he has written an antigang bill that would toughen gun laws, create a witness protection program, and restrict the release of grand jury minutes to defendants and lawyers.
DiMasi is under pressure from prosecutors who want to keep grand jury testimony from getting to defendants in gang crimes.
In his new bill, DiMasi is proposing a system under which defendants' lawyers could petition a court for a hearing at which a judge can consider the constitutional issues.
''As long as a judge is making a decision on giving the grand jury minutes to the defense, he can weigh the constitutional rights of the defendant in getting the testimony under certain restrictions," DiMasi said in a telephone interview on the antigang legislation.
The speaker said the bill will be released today. He also said he expects the full House to take up the measure tomorrow.
The move marks the first clear signal that Beacon Hill lawmakers are working to meet the demands of community leaders, mayors, and law enforcement officials to give police and prosecutors the tools to deal with a rising homicide rate in Boston and other urban areas.
Defense lawyers and advocates for civil liberties have urged DiMasi, who has a background as a defense lawyer, to rewrite a bill that was passed by the Senate last fall.
The lawyers want to make sure, they say, that defendants will retain the right to a fair trial. They have argued that defendants will be stripped of constitutional rights if they are prevented from viewing grand jury minutes of their cases. But prosecutors and community activists say gang defendants intimidate witnesses to change their testimony after reviewing grand jury transcripts.
DiMasi said he is convinced he has struck a balance that will give prosecutors the necessary tools, but that also will guarantee defendants a fair trial.
The speaker also said his proposal for giving defense lawyers access to grand jury minutes is even more restrictive than a plan in the Senate, because it puts the burden on the defense to seek a hearing to gain access.
Under the Senate version, the prosecution must make the request to deny the defense access to the grand jury records.
Citing other differences from the Senate plan, DiMasi also said he is calling for tougher penalties for gun possession.
He also would crack down on the use of guns in violent crimes, and would expand evidence in perjury cases. The Senate bill would toughen perjury laws to discourage witnesses from changing their testimony.
DiMasi has rejected the Senate's plan for change in perjury statutes, and instead said he wants to expand the state's current laws by expanding the evidence that can be used in prosecuting perjury cases.
The reception that DiMasi's proposal will receive today is not yet clear.
But yesterday, prosecutors said they were encouraged, although none said they had seen details of the plan. ''The fact the speaker's ready to put his office behind the bill is going to help tremendously," the Hampden district attorney, William M Bennett, said last night. ''He is making a strong effort to come up with a bill that will get support among prosecutors."
Proponents of antigang legislation have scheduled a rally and press conference today at the State House to urge the House to pass effective legislation. The event will bring together prosecutors, community groups, mayors, sheriffs, and victims of violent crime. Also scheduled to attend are Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey. The rally is sponsored by the Black Ministerial Alliance, the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, Boston's Ten Point Coalition, and the Dorchester Youth Collaborative.
DiMasi said he agrees with the Senate's proposal to provide witnesses with housing and school relocations to avoid intimidation and threats.
DiMasi also is proposing a witness protection board that will not include defense lawyers, as the Senate version does, he said.
DiMasi also said he wants to toughen the Bartley-Fox law. That measure, first passed in 1974, mandates a one-year sentence for anyone carrying a firearm without a license. The penalties would increase the mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession to 18 months.
The Suffolk district attorney, Daniel F. Conley, said he would need to examine the DiMasi bill carefully before commenting.
He said he has worked closely with the Senate sponsor, Senator Jarrett Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat, and Healey.
''I hope that the House bill . . . will be as comprehensive as the Senate version and provides the same tools for prosecutors," Conley said.
Barrios, while withholding specific comment, said details were encouraging. ''The House is moving in the direction of keeping witnesses and their families at the center of the antigang crime effort," he said.