Execution foes take heart

Anti-death penalty stance of Maryland panel turns focus to single vote in Senate committee

November 14, 2008|By Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter and and | Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter and and,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com and gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

Armed with a recommendation from a state commission to abolish Maryland's death penalty, opponents who have long sought to end the practice are hoping to finally put the matter to rest by pressuring key lawmakers to switch their votes.

With many opinions solidified on the personal and divisive issue, anti-death penalty and religious activists are focused on converting just one lawmaker on a Senate committee. Many Annapolis observers say the panel could be the only roadblock to passing a repeal bill - but getting the single vote needed to send the legislation to the floor for an up-or-down vote is far from certain.

One potential swing vote is first-term Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican who attended Bob Jones University and belongs to the National Rifle Association. The engineer, who has voted against a repeal in the past, is regarded by liberal Democratic peers as a thoughtful legislator.

"I'm truly interested in seeing the facts," Simonaire said. "I'm going in with an open mind."

The renewed focus on the death penalty comes amid a number of related events.

A commission appointed by legislative leaders and Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Roman Catholic and death penalty foe, voted this week to urge an end to capital punishment in Maryland, while the administration moves forward with execution protocols that could end two years of a de-facto moratorium.

Death penalty opponents plan to be active in the districts of lawmakers who might be swayed. They are likely to enlist the likes of Sister Helen Prejean, whose story of counseling a death-row inmate became the film Dead Man Walking, and Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien. Cardinal William H. Keeler, who previously held that post, has personally reached out to Catholic lawmakers on the issue.

"We're going to make it as difficult as a possible for members to vote against the death penalty repeal," said Richard J. Dowling, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference. "We're not going to pull any punches. We're going to pull out all the stops."

It's unclear what kind of impact the commission's final report, due next month, will have on the debate. The Maryland commission is basing its recommendation in part on racial and jurisdictional disparities in the application of capital punishment - findings contained in previous reports.

New Jersey banned executions last year after a similar panel recommended the move on a 12-1 vote, a decision that displayed more unanimity than this week's 13-7 vote in Maryland.

O'Malley told the Associated Press yesterday that he hoped the commission's recommendation would prompt lawmakers to take "a fresh look" at the issue, though he said he doesn't know whether enough lawmakers will change their minds. The Democratic governor noted that the state is on course for a significant reduction in homicides. No one has been executed in Maryland since 2005.

"I think wise people can change their mind, and I think that is a sign they are becoming wiser," he said.

Even the bill's chief sponsor acknowledges that movement during the General Assembly session that will begin in January may be unlikely. But Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, said the commission's report will add momentum to repeal efforts. She predicted that such a bill will reach O'Malley's desk by the end of his first term in 2010.

"There's a movement afoot in the state that says consistently now the death penalty doesn't work," said Gladden, a public defender. "We're now in a position to figure out how you get it to the governor's desk."

O'Malley's administration and activist groups have tried to get a feel for vote tallies on the issue. Apart from the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where a repeal bill died on a tied vote last year, activists say they have the votes to get a bill out of the House Judiciary Committee and to win passage in the full House of Delegates.

That scenario was confirmed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch yesterday. "If a bill moves favorably out of the Senate, I believe there are likely a majority of 71 votes in the House in support of a repeal," said Busch, who has supported the death penalty with some reservations and said he will review the commission's findings before making a "personal decision."

Activists think they have the needed support, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said his chamber is "very evenly divided," and he doesn't think the commission report is likely to change anyone's thinking. Miller, who supports the death penalty and wields enormous sway over which bills get a vote in his chamber, said he doesn't plan to lobby his colleagues.

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