House panel dilutes bill on death penalty

March 18, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer

The governor's effort to speed death penalty appeals in Maryland suffered another setback last night when a House committee struck most of the provisions from a bill that would have shortened the process.

The legislation now is in serious trouble in both houses of the legislature.

Last week, a much stronger version of the bill was pulled off the Senate floor after death penalty opponents succeeded in tacking on an amendment that would actually slow the appeals process. Senate supporters said they would bide their time and wait for the House version of the bill to come over.

But last night, in a series of quick votes, the Judiciary Committee stripped from the death penalty reform bill provisions that would have:

* Cut from two to one the number of post-conviction petitions someone condemned to death would be allowed to file.

* Reduced from 240 days to 180 the period in which such post-conviction petitions must be filed.

* Required defendants to ask for a change of venue at least 30 days before the trial date in a death penalty case.

* Made a defendant's decision to be tried by a judge instead of a jury mean that, if he or she is convicted, a judge -- and not a jury -- would also decide whether the defendant is sentenced to death or life imprisonment.

Del. Robert Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who had supported the speed-up provisions, shrugged his shoulders after the vote and explained, "There were a lot of votes teetering or strongly against capital punishment on that committee."

One of the few provisions that remained untouched was a section that would permit a defendant to waive post-conviction appeals. Convicted murderer John Thanos, who is currently on Maryland's death row, attempted to waive his right to appeal, but the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled he could not do that.

The legislation would still place certain time limits on courts, saying a circuit judge must hold a hearing on a post-conviction petition within 180 days of receiving it, and must rule on the petition within 90 days of the hearing.

Bonnie A. Kirkland, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's chief legislative lobbyist, was clearly disappointed by the House committee's action, complaining the bill had been "severely amended."

She said the only hope for the measure now is that the House will pass on some version of the bill to the Senate, which will then restore the provisions that were removed last night, and the differences between the House and Senate versions would be worked out in conference committee.

When the Senate bill was on the floor last week, supporters were surprised by an amendment from black senators and other opponents of capital punishment that would give racial minorities a new avenue of appeal. The amendment would allow judges to overturn death sentences when statistics indicate that race was a significant factor in the decision. Under current law, condemned criminals must prove they were victims of intentional racial discrimination.

Ms. Kirkland recalled that the General Assembly postponed action on bills to speed up death penalty appeals a year ago to give a gubernatorial commission time to study the issue. The bill the Judiciary Committee weakened last night, she said, is the result of a year's work by that commission.

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