Senate votes to continue death penalty bill debate

Moratorium is sought in order to conduct study

March 07, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Prospects looked dim yesterday for passage of a measure that would temporarily halt executions in Maryland, despite a crucial test vote in the Senate that kept the bill alive for another day.

The vote was as close as it could be - with 24 senators in favor of giving preliminary approval to the moratorium measure and 23 senators against.

The deciding vote after passionate debate was cast by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who said he did so only to allow another chance for discussion. He told his colleagues he would vote against the bill when it matters next week.

Proponents of the bill want the death penalty to be put on hold until July 1, 2005, while a comprehensive review of capital punishment in Maryland can be conducted and recommendations developed to remedy racial and geographic sentencing disparities found in a recent state-sponsored study.

There are 12 men on Maryland's death row; three have been put to death since 1976. Many senators also said they don't want to risk putting to death an innocent man.

"We want to be sure the system we have ... is free of error. It's not," said Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "I don't think we've executed anybody who's innocent in the past 25 years, but I think if we keep it up, we probably will."

Said bill sponsor Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat: "I don't think anybody disagrees with the fact that horrible crimes were committed. These people are evil. ... If I were God, I'd remove them all from the face of the Earth and send them straight to hell. But I'm not God ... and mistakes have been made."

Opponents of a moratorium said the issue has been studied enough and that the longer the convicted stay alive on death row, the more the families of the victims suffer.

Miller acknowledged the death penalty in Maryland isn't working but said he won't vote for the moratorium partly because it will die with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. who said he would veto it.

"I don't believe in exercises of futility," Miller said.

A study conducted last year by a University of Maryland professor found geographic and racial disparities in how the death sentence is handed down in the state.

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 also found that jurisdiction greatly affects a defendant's chances of ending up on death row.

While awaiting the report, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening halted executions. The eight-month moratorium expired when Ehrlich took office.

The moratorium bill would begin a new study and form a commission, chaired by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who opposes the death penalty, to make recommendations to fix the capital punishment system in the state.

The bill will not yet move on to a final vote. Instead, it got bogged down yesterday by a later effort to gut it and, instead of a moratorium, an amendment aimed at resolving the bias problem by requiring that capital punishment be sought in every death-eligible case.

The change was proposed by Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican who sponsored a bill just like it that died in committee.

Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

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