Panel gives icy reception to proposal by Schaefer to limit death penalty

February 04, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

A proposal by the governor to limit the use of the state's death penalty drew only criticism during a legislative hearing yesterday and appeared headed for defeat.

During a standing-room-only meeting of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, prosecutors criticized the idea and suggested that it made little sense. Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, said that he had already drawn up an amendment to make sure the provision did not get out of the committee.

At issue is proposed legislation that would delete some of the circumstances in which a jury is permitted to impose a sentence of death in Maryland.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants to remove from the current law contract killings, murders in prison and killings during an escape from lawful custody.

Six other justifications for imposing the death penalty -- including killings in the commission of a rape, robbery or carjacking -- would remain on the books.

The proposal to narrow the death penalty's scope is only a small part of an overall death penalty reform package the governor's office brought to the committee.

By setting time limits for appeals and paperwork, the legislation is designed to shave months off the often lengthy death penalty process. Those provisions received a warm welcome in the committee yesterday.

But two prosecutors testified that the logic of removing some of the grounds for imposing the death penalty eluded them.

S. Ann Brobst is an assistant prosecutor with the Baltimore County state's attorney's office, which is seeking a death sentence against a drug lord who ordered two federal witnesses killed in 1983.

"Do we, as a state, want to [remove] the most violent and most cold-blooded of killers -- the professional killer?" she asked. "It just subverts the whole system."

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said that removing killings in prison from the list would leave courts with little means to punish such crimes.

"What are you going to do to the guy, send him to jail?" Mr. Cassilly said. "It's a short trip."

No one, including one of the governor's legislative aides, spoke in favor of the plan.

Mr. Schaefer said yesterday that his proposals should not be interpreted as a sign that he is soft on crime.

"If anyone has been trying to prevent crime, I have," Mr. Schaefer said. He said his intent was "to streamline the appeals process. I wanted to focus the death penalty on the most serious crimes."

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