Senate panel alters bill on death penalty

Proposed moratorium reduced to one year, hurting its chances

`Snowball's chance in hell'

Measure differs from House version with session near end

April 04, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A Senate committee voted last night to approve a bill calling for a halt to executions in Maryland, but shortened the proposed moratorium from two years to one, a move likely to diminish the legislation's chances.

After much debate over a handful of amendments designed to weaken the measure, the Judicial Proceedings Committee voted 6-5 to send the moratorium bill to the full Senate, where its proponents hope it can be restored to its original two-year form.

Even without the complicating amendment, the bill would face difficulty. The committee passed the Senate's moratorium bill, not the measure passed by the House of Delegates.

That means the Senate bill will have to struggle to clear the Senate floor and the House of Delegates by midnight Monday, when the General Assembly adjourns for the year. Each parliamentary step could be fraught with delaying tactics, particularly since the Senate president and the governor oppose the legislation.

Last night, Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, who initially refused to allow his members a vote on the bill, obliquely threatened to filibuster to block its passage.

"I've got about three or four or five days to talk about this on the floor, which I'm prepared to do if it passes," Baker said moments before the vote.

Pro-moratorium legislators and advocates who have spent weeks developing strategy could not hide their disappointment over the complicating amendment - and the fact that the House bill likely won't get a vote in Baker's committee.

"This bill probably stands a snowball's chance in hell," said Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's Democrat who supports the moratorium. "The bill that should have come out of here was the House bill."

As originally drafted, the legislation in both chambers proposed a two-year moratorium on executions starting July 1, while the University of Maryland studies whether the death penalty is unfairly applied to African-Americans, who account for nine of the 13 men on Maryland's death row.

The bills called for the study - which is under way - to be finished by June 2002. The 2003 General Assembly was supposed to analyze the results and come up with any needed remedies.

Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a conservative Republican from Dorchester County, offered the amendment to shorten the moratorium. The measure would require completion of the study by the end of this year, and the moratorium would end in June 2002.

Jane Henderson of Equal Justice USA, a human rights group, said the new deadline for the study was unrealistic because the university only began its work last fall.

"The data doesn't exist," Henderson said with frustration. "They have to collect it."

Richard K. Dowling, lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, which considers the moratorium a priority, said the amended bill would give lawmakers less time to consider the study's results.

"It seems to me what they've done is to limit the legislative options," he said.

The genesis of the unexpected amendment was curious.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican, said he could support the moratorium if, in addition to racial bias, the study examined whether murderers serving life without parole have been released because of judicial discretion in reducing sentences. His aim was to make sure such inmates can't be set free, he said.

His amendment to that effect was defeated.

When Colburn - who hotly opposes the moratorium - offered his amendment to limit it to one year, Mooney was the swing vote that allowed it to pass.

Mooney said later that he saw Colburn's change as an opportunity to get his own approved, presumably on the Senate floor.

"If they want my support for two years, they're going to have to support my amendment," he said.

Mooney joined five Democrats in supporting the amended moratorium bill. They were Green, Jennie M. Forehand of Montgomery County, and Ralph M. Hughes, Clarence M. Mitchell IV and Perry Sfikas, all of Baltimore.

Yesterday's debate foreshadowed what could turn into a tense discussion in the Senate.

Baker and Colburn argued that the moratorium was nothing more than an effort to abolish the death penalty in Maryland. Baker read a long list of the crimes committed by the state's death row inmates.

"These folks that you're trying to protect are killers," he said, adding that while he abhorred prejudice, "Do you think you're going to stop it by enacting a law?"

Hughes, who supported the bill along with the entire Legislative Black Caucus, left the committee room subdued but hopeful.

"I don't think the study can be finished in a year," he said. "Our goal would be to take that amendment off on the floor."

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