Florida House approves shielding murder witnesses’ identities

The examples of tragedy in Rep. Cynthia Stafford’s district are almost too many for the Miami Democrat to list, but she offered a few to the Florida House on Thursday:

▪ “A 10-year-old retrieving his basketball in his front yard, shot and killed.”

▪ “An 8-year-old girl shot and killed, walking out of her front yard.”

▪ “A straight-A student on her way to college — the valedictorian of her class with a full scholarship — shot and killed riding in her car.”

“In each of these instances, someone knows what happens, but they’re afraid to come forward,” said Stafford, who represents areas that include Opa-locka, Liberty City and parts of Miami Gardens.

Witness intimidation is real and so is retaliation.

Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami

Stafford hopes legislation she proposed will give murder witnesses more incentive to talk with police, and the Florida House endorsed her bill Thursday by a near-unanimous vote.

Described as a “witness protection” bill, HB 111 creates a new exemption in Florida law that shields murder witnesses’ identities from being released in public records for two years after the crime. (Criminal defendants and their attorneys could still have access to the name as required during a criminal case, such as the period of discovery before a trial.)

MORE: “To ‘stop this no-snitch mentality,’ murder witnesses could be protected”

“Witness intimidation is real and so is retaliation,” Stafford said. “This bill will hopefully encourage people to come forward and help law enforcement solve murders.”

Only three lawmakers in the 120-member House voted against granting the exemption, citing the First Amendment Foundation’s opposition as his reason.

“It’s a laudable purpose,” Aventura Democratic Rep. Joseph Geller said. “But we always have to be vigilant when it comes to public records, and there may be other approaches that would be satisfactory here.”

Also opposing the bill were Reps. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, and Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero.

The First Amendment Foundation objects to shielding murder witnesses’ identities because “the issue of governmental oversight is so critical,” foundation president Barbara Petersen said.

“I’m sympathetic, but I don’t think this is going to solve the problem,” Petersen added. “The legislation sort of assumes that the problem is our open government laws, that witnesses aren’t coming forward because their information will be public record. That’s an assumption. I haven’t seen any evidence that supports that.”

MORE: “Witness protection measure advances in Florida Senate despite concerns”

The Senate version of Stafford’s bill, SB 550 by Orlando Democrat Sen. Randolph Bracy, has a strong chance of passing that chamber, too. Despite being assigned to four committees — bills usually face only three — it has just one hearing left before it could reach the floor. It passed two committees unanimously, after receiving some opposition in its first Senate hearing.

Stafford said the exemption for murder witnesses is not unlike protections afforded to sexual assault victims and victims of child abuse. In that same vein, she said, “we want witnesses to murder to come forward so we can bring murderers to justice.”

I’m sympathetic, but I don’t think this is going to solve the problem.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation

Prior to the House vote, Stafford gave an impassioned speech describing why she pursued the legislation — comments that drew a standing ovation from the chamber, as well as applause after the bill passed. She also earned praise from House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes. “Excellent job, Representative Stafford,” he said.

Several Miami-based groups advocated strongly for the witness exemption, including Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and at least a dozen mothers whose children were killed by gun violence who drove to Tallahassee several times to speak with lawmakers.

“The mothers’ voices were heard — couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Rep. Kionne McGhee, another Democrat from Miami who co-sponsored the bill. “Children shouldn’t be afraid of coming forward to talk about crime that affects them, and this bill gives them an opportunity to do so.”

Carvalho said he believes the measure “will go a long way to protecting the safety of witnesses who know far more than what they’re willing to reveal out of concern for their own lives.”

“The most powerful element of this bill is that it will break the code of silence that often protects — through intimidation — the perpetrators,” he said. “It’s about empowering our community members with the ability to speak their minds without fear of retribution.”