Death penalty bill OK'd by panel

Measure would halt executions for new study

It now goes to the Senate floor

Ehrlich promises a veto if the legislation passes

March 01, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

A bill that would halt executions in Maryland for the next two years while the death penalty receives a more stringent review cleared a major hurdle yesterday, surviving a close committee vote and moving next week to the Senate floor.

The move comes after a study conducted last year by a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park that found geographic and racial disparities in how the death sentence is handed down in the state. It comes as 12 men sit on Maryland's death row, with several death warrants ready to be signed in the next few months.

Senators who voted to approve the moratorium said no harm would be done by waiting for the results of another study - and then considering the recommendations that would be handed down by a commission created by the bill. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat, passed on a 6-5 vote in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

"I don't want to kill another single person until we're convinced we're doing this equitably," said Sen. John A Giannetti Jr., a Democrat representing Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.

Yesterday's vote suggests that the moratorium bill has a better chance of passage this year than recent similar measures - and it may signal a change in a Senate committee that had been known for its conservative nature. When a watered-down moratorium bill made it through Judicial Proceedings two years ago, the committee's former chairman led a filibuster on the Senate floor.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has been against past efforts to halt executions, said the bill will get a full hearing next week.

"I think it'll be a close vote," Miller said. "It's the Senate at its very best deciding issues the public are interested in. It's one of those issues that minds are not changed by lobbying. People have strong opinions."

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the minority leader, said he was surprised to see the measure clear the committee. He said death penalty advocates are looking to see if they have the support to keep it from coming to a vote.

"I suspect there's a good possibility that it will be filibustered," said Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican. "A moratorium now would likely mean forever, and polls repeatedly show Marylanders support the death penalty for particularly heinous crimes."

Yesterday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. renewed his pledge that a moratorium will not become law. "If it reaches my desk, I'll be sure to veto it," Ehrlich said.

Sen. James Brochin, another committee member, said he voted against the moratorium because he is convinced that only those convicted of the very worst heinous crimes are given the ultimate sentence. "I think everyone who is on death row deserves the death penalty," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "It's that simple for me."

The committee also narrowly passed a bill that would make it more difficult to impose the death penalty by requiring a stricter standard for judges and juries to use in deliberations.

But the committee defeated a measure known as Dawn's Law, which would require state's attorneys to seek the death penalty in all death-eligible cases - one lawmaker's response to geographic inequities found in the University of Maryland study.

That report found that blacks who kill whites are 2 1/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death than are whites who kill whites and 3 1/2 times more likely to be executed than blacks who kill blacks. It found that jurisdiction greatly affects a defendant's chances of ending up on death row.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said the state has a de facto moratorium since the death sentence of convicted murderer Steven H. Oken was halted by an appeal until it can be heard in May. Curran said he hopes it will continue.

Maryland has executed three people since 1976, but seven death warrants could be sought in coming months. The legislation approved by the committee yesterday would establish a Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment. The commission's chairman would be Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele - who opposes the death penalty - and it would hold public hearings, study capital punishment in the state and make recommendations.

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is the longest-serving member of the committee and one of the five votes against the moratorium, called yesterday's decision "the first definitive vote for the committee," one that shows a "major shift in philosophy."

Under Sen. Walter M. Baker, a conservative Cecil County Democrat, the committee also regularly voted 6-5 in recent years. But it typically rejected such proposals as a stringent death penalty moratorium - and Baker was known for not letting the committee vote on bills he opposed if he thought a majority would go against him.

The committee's new chairman, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, is seen as a more moderate voice. Frosh said any change in the committee's behavior has as much to do with four new members as his leadership.

Now that he has seen what happened on the death penalty, Jimeno said he expects similar results on gun control legislation next week.

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