Bills aim to widen death penalty

Measures would broaden scope of cases eligible for capital punishment

General Assembly

January 29, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

As lawyers begin this week to argue a rare Baltimore death penalty case, legislators in Annapolis are weighing a handful of bills that would broaden the scope of the state's harshest penalty.

One bill, introduced on behalf of the governor, would call for capital punishment for those who intimidate potential witnesses or try to stop someone from testifying. Another, inspired by the Washington-area sniper killings in 2002, would allow capital punishment when a defendant is convicted of committing more than one killing within a certain time frame, as in cases of spree or serial killings. A third bill would make the killing of off-duty police officers in certain circumstances eligible for death.

Two of the bills were sparked, in part, by the case of Jovan J. House, whose trial began yesterday before city Circuit Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr.

House, 22, was indicted Dec. 19, 2002, in the execution-style killing of off-duty police Detective Thomas G. Newman. Prosecutors contend that House and co-defendants Raymond Saunders and Anthony A. Brown killed Newman for revenge after he testified against Saunders' half-brother, who was convicted of shooting the detective during an ambush in April 2001.

House's trial is only the second capital case heard in Baltimore in nearly a decade.

Legislation introduced in Annapolis could make the death penalty less of a rarity in the state.

Del. W. Louis Hennessy of Charles County, a retired police officer who spent two years as commander of the Washington police homicide unit, introduced a bill last week identical to a Senate bill introduced this week on behalf of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Yesterday, Hennessy said he would withdraw his bill in favor of the governor's, agreeing that witnesses are often reluctant to testify for fear of their lives.

"I'm not a huge fan of the death penalty, but this is a huge problem, and from a law enforcement perspective, I always compare it to killing a police officer," he said. "When you have an officer killed, it doesn't interrupt the job of the police, but when you have a witness killed, it really sends a message. It can stop an investigation cold."

In Baltimore, few killings had a more chilling effect than the 2002 arson deaths of Angela Dawson, her husband, Carnell Dawson, and five of their children. A drug dealer admitted setting fire to the Dawson house in retaliation for the family's repeated calls to police about drug dealing in their neighborhood.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary committee, co-sponsored the legislation that would make killings such as the the Dawsons' punishable by execution.

"There are a couple of bills this time that we've never heard of before," Vallario said. "We'll take them all up one day next month."

Another piece of first-time legislation, sponsored by Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany County Democrat, would allow a death sentence in cases in which the defendant is convicted of killing an off-duty law enforcement officer in retaliation for the officer's actions while on duty.

Del. Carmen Amedori, a Carroll County Republican and a member of the House Judiciary committee, signed on as a co-sponsor of Kelly's bill, as well all of this year's death penalty bills.

Amedori also reintroduced her legislation to add the commission of more than one first-degree murder within a specified period to the list of aggravating circumstances a court or jury can consider for a death sentence.

Fifty-two delegates have signed her bill, including one sponsor from every district in the state, Amedori said.

"In Maryland, we have these little cracks in the death penalty system, and we're trying to rectify them," she said. "It really is all about justice."

Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, has introduced a bill that would require audio and videotaping of all police interrogations in capital cases, to eliminate questions about what witnesses or defendants tell investigators.

Other possible death penalty bills not yet filed include a version similar to Amedori's that calls for the death penalty when three or more murders are committed. Another prospective bill would make the killing of an unborn child eligible for capital punishment.

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