Senate deals setback to death penalty bill

Debate is postponed until today

moratorium might not have majority

April 06, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Supporters of legislation to temporarily halt executions in Maryland suffered a setback last night when the Senate voted to postpone debate on the bill until today.

With few days left until the General Assembly adjourns Monday, the delay could stymie the bill, which calls for a one-year moratorium on capital punishment while the University of Maryland studies whether the death sentence is given disproportionately to blacks.

The House of Delegates has passed a bill calling for a two-year moratorium on executions.

Last night's vote was also disappointing for proponents because the bill, in its debut before the full Senate, seemed a few votes short of majority support.

Moratorium advocates had waited all day to debate the bill, which they hoped to restore to its two-year form. About 10 p.m. they finally got their chance. Within minutes, however, they had lost control of the proceedings. A motion to postpone it, offered by Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, passed, 24-22.

Although not all of the yes votes represented anti-moratorium senators, it was nevertheless a dismal sign to the bill's backers, who earlier in the day had said the numbers were on their side.

The bill's opponents were heartened last night. After the vote, Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Dorchester County Republican who staunchly opposes the bill, said to Baker, "You're a hero, Senator. Thank you."

After the vote, the Senate's nine black members, all of whom support the bill, gathered in the Senate lounge to clarify strategy for this morning. Sens. Ralph M. Hughes and Clarence M. Mitchell IV, Baltimore Democrats, had appeared confused on the floor over some amendments, and Baker had taken advantage of it.

Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat and the bill's sponsor, said he was chagrined by the procedural "shenanigans" aimed at hurting his legislation, but not surprised.

"When the bill was introduced it was in trouble," he said. "If you don't want this bill, you're going to play hardball. You're going to take advantage of every nuance. But that doesn't make me happy."

Despite the delay, some moratorium backers remain hopeful. Before leaving the chamber, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, bickered with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller over what time the Senate would resume the debate.

"Obviously, you didn't have the votes," Miller said to McFadden.

"Mr. President, prayer works," he replied. "You'll be surprised. There'll be some change of hearts in here."

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