Senate passes bill to expedite appeals of death penalty

March 16, 1995|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

Legislation that would speed the often protracted process of appealing a death penalty conviction was overwhelmingly approved by the Maryland Senate yesterday.

The 38-8 vote was an important hurdle for Gov. Parris N. Glendening's death penalty reform proposal. The measure would shorten the period between imposition of a death sentence and carrying it out.

A similar bill died in the Senate last year after black lawmakers succeeded in attaching an amendment that critics said changed the bill's intent. The amendment would have made it easier to overturn death sentences if statistics showed that race is a significant factor in such decisions.

Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, a Prince George's Democrat, said he decided not to introduce the amendment again this year because of the governor's recent decision to create a task force to study possible racial discrimination in death penalty cases.

"The governor has assured us that he will appoint a committee to look at the application of the death penalty in Maryland," Mr. Trotter announced to fellow lawmakers. "We've accepted his word."

An administration spokesman said the task force has not yet been named, but said it will be "diverse and balanced" and will work with the legislature. He also noted that a 1993 gubernatorial commission found no evidence of intentional discrimination in death sentences.

The bill approved yesterday would impose stricter time limits and other new rules on prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. It would shorten from 240 days to 180 days the time a defendant has to file a post-conviction petition, and reduce from two to one the number of post-conviction petitions that a defendant may file under most circumstances.

It also would allow prosecutors more time to decide whether to seek the death penalty, and it would prevent a defendant who elects not to have a jury trial from asking that a jury sentence him.

Senators offered little debate before the vote. Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he was troubled that the bill would give an innocent person less opportunity to overturn a wrongful conviction.

"This bill speeds up the procedure without sacrificing the rights of a defendant," countered Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County.

While Senate Bill 340 is little changed from what the administration sought, the House has so far been more lenient toward defendants. Among other changes, the version passed by the House Judiciary Committee maintains the 240-day limit on post-conviction petitions.

Proponents claim the Senate bill would reduce the appeal process from 11 years to as little as six. But most experts say the time savings is difficult to estimate.

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