Death penalty repeal fails

Senate panel's 5-5 vote ends bid to outlaw executions in Md.

General Assembly

March 16, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Efforts to repeal the death penalty in Maryland were dealt an apparently fatal blow yesterday when a key state Senate committee defeated the measure, leaving a court-ordered moratorium on state executions in place and some legislators weighing a study of the issue.

Weeks of behind-the-scenes wrangling and lobbying by religious and law enforcement officials culminated yesterday with the bill's defeat in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on a tie vote.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, the Frederick Republican and devout Catholic who was expected to swing the Senate vote, did not support the repeal after trying unsuccessfully to exempt prisoners who kill again while serving a jail term. He told the committee that he struggled with the choice.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on the front page of yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly reported the occupation of state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden. She is a public defender.
The Sun regrets the error.

"I have decided that a full and absolute repeal of the death penalty under all circumstances is not in the best interest for the common good of Maryland's citizens," he said.

Six votes were needed on the 11-member committee to pass the bill, which had the support of Gov. Martin O'Malley. The committee's decision, one vote short, is likely to bury the measure for the General Assembly session, even though a similar bill is still in play in the House Judiciary Committee.

Without the Senate's backing, the House sponsor of the repeal bill said yesterday that he will not call for a vote. The bill could still be petitioned directly to the Senate floor, but the bill's sponsor said she lacks the votes to win passage there.

Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman, said the governor is disappointed in the Senate committee vote but is weighing the best course of action.

"While we had hoped that the legislature would repeal the death penalty, the governor will take the next few weeks to consider his options moving forward," he said.

Though Maryland lawmakers have in recent years considered similar repeal proposals, this session's bill was debated with greater urgency as a result of a December Court of Appeals ruling effectively halting executions. The court determined that the state's lethal injection procedures should be reviewed by the legislature and adopted as regulations. Until those guidelines are in place, the high court said, inmates cannot be executed.

A bill to sidestep that process and exempt the lethal injection protocols from that review failed, however, in the House Judiciary Committee.

Yesterday's vote leaves lawmakers with limited immediate options and a dimming hope that swelling national support for repeal will sway Maryland officials this year.

O'Malley, in conjunction with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, could craft the appropriate protocols to administer lethal injections, and a legislative committee would then have to sign off. However, the governor would, under some circumstances, have the authority to approve lethal injection regulations without the legislative panel's approval.

Either move would reinstate the death penalty, and each is doubtful given O'Malley's firm support for repeal. In testifying before the House and Senate committees, the governor called capital punishment "inherently unjust" and argued that it does not deter crime.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a death penalty proponent, suggested yesterday that the matter could be put to voters in a statewide referendum in 2008. "The issue is stalemated unless there's some form of breakthrough," Miller said.

The final possibility is a long shot, even bill supporters admit: The repeal that was defeated in committee yesterday can be petitioned to the floor. That would require 16 signatures; Mooney said he would support a petition.

"Let the full Senate consider it," he said.

But there again, odds are against repeal, according to Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill. Gladden told her committee colleagues that she did not have the floor votes and that until Miller, a Democrat, gets on board, she fears a repeal is doomed.

"There is no will on the Senate floor to repeal the death penalty," said Gladden, who is a prosecutor.

Advocates for the repeal expressed disappointment but a firm determination to try again next year.

"I'm dumbfounded, but I'm certainly not giving up," said Kirk Bloodsworth, who was wrongly convicted in Maryland of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl but was exonerated by DNA evidence. "There's plenty of fight in this dog yet. ... Wrongful convictions are happening in this state, and wrongful death, you can't pull that back."

Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, cited a statewide poll commissioned by the Maryland Catholic Conference that showed 61 percent of Marylanders would support replacing the death penalty with life without parole. The survey of 625 registered Maryland voters conducted in early February also found that 56 percent support the death penalty.

"This is not over," Henderson said. "We are not going away."

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