Committee rejects bill to make it harder to impose death sentence

Victim's mother appears to oppose the legislation

March 14, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Minutes after a testy hearing yesterday, a Senate committee voted down a proposal to make Maryland's death penalty more difficult to impose.

The legislation, which was considered by the Judicial Proceedings Committee, would have raised the standard of proof needed to sentence someone to death.

"When we're making life-or-death decisions, we ought to be as sure as possible that we're doing the right thing," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery Democrat and sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.

Frosh's testimony lasted longer than the minute allotted him by Sen. Walter M. Baker, the committee chairman. That prompted Baker to cut him off more than once.

Baker also limited another prominent supporter of the bill, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., to a minute.

Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, is known as one of the General Assembly's strongest death penalty advocates. Last session, he led a filibuster to defeat a proposed moratorium on state executions.

Almost immediately after the hearing ended, the committee rejected the bill, 7-4. That vote effectively kills the proposal in the House of Delegates, where a committee also heard a version of the legislation yesterday.

Under current law, a defendant must be found guilty of capital murder "beyond a reasonable doubt," but a lesser standard is used in the sentencing phase of a case.

In deciding whether to impose the death penalty, judges or juries must find that aggravating factors against the defendant, such as rape of the victim, outweigh mitigating factors, such as the defendant's mental illness.

The legislation would have raised that standard, known as "a preponderance of the evidence," to the higher hurdle of "beyond a reasonable doubt." It also would have lifted the death sentences of the 13 men on Maryland's death row.

Proponents of the bill contend that, because of a pending U.S. Supreme Court case, that might happen anyway.

The appeal of Steven H. Oken, who killed a White Marsh woman in 1987, is based on another Supreme Court decision that struck down New Jersey's hate crimes statute, finding that a jury must use the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard when sentencing a defendant beyond the statutory maximum.

Some legal experts think if the court rules in favor of Oken -- who had been scheduled to die this month until the Court of Appeals granted him a reprieve -- the state's other death row inmates could appeal on the same basis.

Betty Romano, the mother of Oken's victim, came to Annapolis yesterday to lobby against the bill. Passing around a simulated photograph of how her daughter would have looked today if she had lived, she challenged the committee members, "Now, you tell me, as a parent, if you can handle something like that."

But Katy O'Donnell, chief of the capital defense division of the Office of the Public Defender, noted that Maryland's standard is used in only one other state -- Delaware, while at least eight other states use the higher standard.

Her arguments were countered by several prosecutors, including Stephen Bailey of Baltimore County. That jurisdiction ranks second in the nation in its use of the death penalty, according to a recent Columbia University study.

"It's a weighing process -- a judgment call," he said.

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