Death penalty bill goes forward

House panel gives strong support to 2-year moratorium

Floor debate set for today

March 23, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A two-year moratorium on the death penalty received unexpectedly strong backing in a General Assembly committee yesterday, giving big hopes to proponents of a measure that looked doomed just two months ago.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 14-7 to approve the bill, which would halt executions until the University of Maryland completes a study on whether the state uses capital punishment unfairly against African-Americans.

Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said last night that the measure will go to the floor of the House of Delegates today for debate.

The committee's vote shortly before 5 p.m. capped a day of nervous head-counting by sponsors of the bill. By noon, they figured they had 11 solid votes, one short of a majority.

On hearing the final count, Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat who has pushed aggressively for a moratorium for several years, could barely contain her glee.

"I prayed this morning, real good," she said, adding that the vote made her optimistic about the bill's prospects in the full House. "Generally, when a bill passes 2-to-1 in committee, you don't have to work too hard to move it forward."

The Judiciary Committee also voted 11-10 yesterday to kill a bill that sought to abolish the death penalty - a surprisingly narrow defeat.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the committee's chairman, had said Tuesday that he would not schedule a vote on the moratorium until the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee took up its identical version of the bill.

Asked yesterday why he changed his mind, Vallario said, "We have to get our calendar clear by Monday in order to rock 'n' roll," referring to self-imposed legislative deadlines in the session, which ends April 9.

He added, "I think it's time for the full House to decide this issue."

Judging by the discussion in the committee yesterday, delegates are likely to engage in an emotionally trying debate when the bill reaches the floor. For it to pass, proponents must secure votes of those who support the death penalty in theory but are unsure of its practice.

Supporters carefully stressed that a moratorium was not inconsistent with a tough-on-crime political stance.

"This is a two-year delay. It's that simple," said Del. William H. Cole IV, who passed around an article before the vote about a Massachusetts man who was freed from death row last week because of DNA evidence.

"Whether you support the death penalty or oppose the death penalty, it doesn't matter," said Cole, a Baltimore Democrat. "A prosecutor can still seek the death penalty while this is in effect."

That argument did not persuade some Republicans on the committee, who characterized the moratorium as a way to sneak a repeal of capital punishment into Maryland.

"Don't do this, because we all know what it is," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell of Calvert County. "It's a sequential step to doing away with the death penalty, which we never use in the first place."

Thirteen men are on Maryland's death row. Nine of them are African-American, the highest percentage in the country - one reason the Legislative Black Caucus has made the moratorium one of its priorities this session.

In addition, four inmates on death row could be scheduled for execution before year's end.

One committee member struggled more visibly over yesterday's vote than anyone else on the panel. Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, paced the floor and rubbed his jaw and temples as the others debated.

When his name was called to vote, he paused for several seconds before voicing a quiet yes.

Zirkin explained later that he is not opposed to the death penalty but cannot shake the fear that the sentence is handed out unfairly to blacks - a situation he called a "moral crisis."

When a mother of a death row inmate came to see him recently, he said he told her, "`My first, second and third thoughts are with the victims and their families.' ... But what tortures me is that we would put someone to death who is innocent."

If the measure does get through the House, it cannot reach the governor's desk unless the Senate passes its version as well. The Senate moratorium bill is sitting idly in that chamber's Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The chairman, Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, has told committee members that he's not planning to schedule a vote on it.

Baker left Annapolis yesterday afternoon for a doctor's appointment and could not be reached for comment.

Moratorium supporters hope the House committee's action will persuade Baker to let his panel take a vote. A poll of the Senate committee indicates that the bill has a good chance of passing there.

Several senators who back the measure met yesterday with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to ask for his help.

Despite assurances from Miller, who said earlier this week that "it's going to be voted on," some on the Senate panel are worried.

"The sentiments of a majority of the committee are that if we can save an innocent person's life by holding off any further executions while the study takes place, then we hope the chairman will let the bill come out," said Sen. Perry Sfikas, a Baltimore Democrat.

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