Death penalty measure stalled

Md. Senate filibuster dims the chances of a moratorium

April 08, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Lawmakers pushing for a moratorium on executions in Maryland are steeling themselves to fight again tomorrow on the Senate floor. But despite their war-room strategies and optimistic public predictions, the outlook for their bill is decidedly bleak.

Moratorium supporters believe they have a very slim majority in the 47-member Senate. But a debate that stretched into early yesterday proved repeatedly they have nowhere near the 32 votes required to break a filibuster begun Friday night.

When the chamber takes up the measure tomorrow - the last day of the General Assembly session - they will be under intense pressure to surrender so the Senate can act on dozens of other bills before the clock runs out at midnight.

"Either I work something out, or a lot of other bills are going to die," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. He strongly opposes the moratorium, which he sees as a veiled attempt to abolish capital punishment.

To encourage moratorium supporters to back down, Miller said he might try to negotiate passage of other bills important to the Legislative Black Caucus, which counts the moratorium among its priorities.

Although proponents say they don't plan to give in, they clearly understand the weakness of their position. Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's Democrat who wants the moratorium, compared its status to a life-support patient whose relatives have just signed an order to pull the plug.

Nevertheless, moratorium advocates say they are gratified by the enormous attention the issue has gained. When the session began in January, even the bill's most ardent supporters doubted it could get this far.

"We were just hoping we could get a good hearing out of it," Del. William H. Cole IV, a Baltimore Democrat, said yesterday, adding that he still thought the bill could pass. "Regardless of what happens, the governor is now aware that there's a fairly large community concerned with the fairness of the death penalty."

The Senate proposal calls for a one-year halt to state executions while the University of Maryland conducts a statistical analysis of whether death sentences are disproportionately handed out to African-Americans.

Of the 13 men on Maryland's death row, nine are black - the highest percentage in the nation. The same is true historically: Of the 83 people executed in Maryland since 1923, 64 were black. Most were sentenced to death for killing whites.

A handful of lawmakers have been trying for several years to enact a moratorium. Their colleagues paid scant attention until this session, when the issue gained urgency in part because four death row inmates could be executed by year's end - one more than the total put to death since capital punishment was reinstated in Maryland in 1978.

The black caucus championed the bill, joining forces with the Maryland Catholic Conference and other groups. High-powered backers signed on, such as former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

Attorney and forensic DNA expert Barry C. Scheck, who helped free Kirk Bloodsworth after he spent seven years on Maryland's death row, came from New York to testify before lawmakers.

Still, the bill faced huge obstacles. Some prominent legislators said they saw no need for it in a system that gives inmates ample opportunity to appeal. Only after House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. intervened did the measure's supporters secure a vote in a key House committee, which approved the moratorium 2-to-1. The full House of Delegates strongly supported it, too, by a vote of 82-54.

But it faced especially daunting foes in the Senate, including Sen. Walter M. Baker, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, who initially refused to entertain a vote on it. As a courtesy to the bill's highly respected sponsor, Sen. Clarence W. Blount of Baltimore, Miller urged Baker to relent.

Baker's panel finally approved the bill last week, but only after the proposed two-year moratorium was shortened to one. If the Senate were to approve the measure tomorrow, it would still have to clear the House of Delegates, which backed a two-year bill.

Death row inmates, and particularly the four men whose appeal options are running out, have been watching the moratorium's progress closely.

Yesterday, Davida Oken, mother of Steven Howard Oken, had not given up. Her son's death warrant will go before a judge next week. If signed, Oken could be executed within two months.

"I'm hoping beyond belief that they pass the bill," she said before joining about 60 people at a rally against the death penalty outside the Baltimore prison where executions are carried out.

The other side has been vigilant as well. On Friday evening as the Senate filibuster was under way, Frederick Romano of Belcamp came to Annapolis with his family and a glossy 8-by-10-inch photograph of his sister, Dawn Garvin, in her wedding dress.

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