Execution halt dealt stiff blow in Senate

Discussion ended until Monday, making passage unlikely

April 07, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Legislation to temporarily halt executions in Maryland was dealt a potentially fatal blow when the state Senate voted early this morning to end discussion of the matter until Monday.

The action came after opponents of the contentious measure waged a filibuster against it for 2 1/2 hours.

Even if the bill passes the Senate, which is unlikely, there might not be enough time for it to become law because the House of Delegates would have to vote on it before the General Assembly session ends Monday night.

"Other bills have done it, but they've been bills that had an overwhelming consensus. This bill doesn't have it," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat.

The Senate legislation calls for a one-year moratorium on executions while the University of Maryland studies whether the sentence is unfairly handed out to blacks. The House has approved a two-year moratorium.

Proponents think they have a slim majority for the proposal in the Senate. But yesterday's opposition, begun by Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, proved they lacked the 32 votes needed to break the filibuster.

"You call this a moratorium? Shucks, it's not a moratorium. This is the death penalty," Baker said. "It's `Are you for or against the death penalty?'"

The difficulty of deciding such an issue is why neither side is prepared to give up.

"They said they're not going to flinch, and we said we're not going to flinch," said Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat and floor leader for supporters of the bill. "I guess we're going to see who flinches first."

Postponing the debate until Monday is likely to increase the pressure enormously. Working under a midnight deadline that day, the Senate must act on other important legislation, such as the capital budget, an ethics reform bill and legislation to create a prescription drug program for the elderly.

If the filibuster continues, it could clog the General Assembly on the last day of the session and doom such legislation.

To avoid that, Miller indicated he might try to compromise with moratorium supporters by pushing along other bills important to the Legislative Black Caucus such as a DNA testing bill and a measure to allow some felons to vote. The caucus has made the moratorium a priority.

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