Death penalty revoked in N.J.

Despite hopes, repeal in Md. faces hurdles

December 18, 2007|By Bradley Olson and Jennifer McMenamin | Bradley Olson and Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporters

New Jersey became the first state in decades yesterday to abolish the death penalty, giving hope to opponents of capital punishment that Maryland and other states could soon follow.

But the obstacles to passing a repeal or even a moratorium in the General Assembly next month remain high. Key lawmakers concede that the legislature is as polarized over the emotionally charged issue as it was last year, when a bill seeking a repeal was defeated by one vote in a Senate committee.

Still, the news of New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine's decision to sign the repeal bill yesterday and to commute the sentences of the state's eight death-row inmates led many to believe that the momentum in Maryland will be on the opponents' side.

"This is incredible. I'm so excited," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and public defender who sponsored last year's measure to repeal. She said she is working to marshal enough votes to get another bill to the Senate floor in the next session.

"I don't believe the government should kill people," Gladden said. "I just don't."

Gov. Martin O'Malley is a strong opponent of the death penalty, and a spokeswoman said he will continue his push to abolish capital punishment in January. But it remains unclear how much appetite legislators will have to take up such a divisive issue with the scars of November's special session over taxes and slot machines still fresh - and with the prospect of a debate on same-sex marriage on the horizon.

Further complicating repeal efforts is the fact that Maryland effectively is under a moratorium on executions imposed by the Court of Appeals last year. The state's highest court halted executions until the legislature could review Maryland's lethal injection procedures. Legislation to overturn that moratorium last year was no more successful than Gladden's repeal effort.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican whose vote against the repeal deadlocked the issue 5-5 in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said his views have not changed, although he remained "open to being convinced."

Mooney said he was persuaded by the case of Kevin G. Johns Jr., a twice-convicted murderer who is accused of strangling a fellow inmate on a prison bus a day after warning a judge that he would kill again if he didn't get the psychiatric help he needed. His case is scheduled to go to trial in May.

"Unless they execute a guy like that, I don't feel assured he's not going to kill another person," Mooney said.

New Jersey is the first state to repeal capital punishment since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the practice in 1976, and lawmakers there said yesterday that they believed their example would be an inspiration to other states. But New Jersey was never at the forefront of the capital punishment movement. Although the state voted to reinstate the death penalty in 1982, it has not put an inmate to death since 1963.

While Maryland employs capital punishment much more sparingly than states such as Texas and Virginia, it has put two convicted murderers to death in the past three years. Five men remain on Maryland's death row.

Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said opposition to capital punishment is growing across the nation. He said New Jersey's repeal could tip the balance.

Lawmakers in Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico and Colorado have tallied close votes on death penalty repeal bills this year, while North Carolina, Tennessee and California are studying the issue.

None, however, was as far along as New Jersey, Dieter said, where the debate was based not on moral grounds but on pragmatic considerations. Some lawmakers changed their minds when they saw that the process was "taking victims' families through 15 years of uncertainty" without anyone ever being executed. They realized that "if there is any deterrent effect to the death penalty, there isn't one if there aren't any executions," he said.

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, who unsuccessfully sought a death sentence this year, said he hopes efforts to abolish capital punishment will fail here and elsewhere.

"I think it's kind of surprising that in a state just across the river from New York, where a lot of people watched the towers come down on Sept. 11 and could see the smoke from New York, have now taken away any appropriate response if the same thing happens in New Jersey," Cassilly said.

He attributed the momentum in New Jersey to judges whose court rulings created too many obstacles for prosecutors to use the death penalty effectively.

"Rather than fix what was wrong with the penalty, they just gave up," Cassilly said.

O'Malley spokeswoman Christine N. Hansen said the governor remains "hopeful that Maryland will follow in the footsteps of New Jersey," but Gladden said she was unsure how much he would champion the repeal unless the votes were lined up. At this stage, Gladden said, that is not the case.

Even if a repeal succeeds in committee, there might not be enough votes to pass it in the full Senate, let alone to avoid a filibuster, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee and supports a repeal.

"I know the bill will be back. The issue is always with us," he said. "But we've got a lot of hurdles."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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