Death penalty discussed

Lawmakers examine path to repeal this year in Md.

January 30, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz and Gadi Dechter | Julie Bykowicz and Gadi Dechter,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com and gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

After Gov. Martin O'Malley called for a "fair up or down vote" on the death penalty during his State of the State address yesterday, top lawmakers began discussing strategies for how that could happen this year.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said it was "strongly possible" that the entire Senate would debate the O'Malley-backed initiative and predicted a close vote in favor of repealing Maryland's death penalty. Miller vowed to block filibuster efforts.

Miller, a staunch supporter of capital punishment, said he believes the death penalty "is not working in the state of Maryland, because of judges, because of lawyers, because of cost."

Previous legislative efforts at repeal have been hung up in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. A bill died on a 5-5 vote in 2007 and was not considered for a vote last year. Typically, the full Senate only takes up bills favorably recommended by a committee, though several lawmakers and the governor's aides have raised the possibility of using a procedural move to circumvent that process and allow all senators a vote on the issue.

A recent opinion poll shows that a majority of Marylanders support the death penalty.

Miller has advised the governor, a fellow Democrat, to stay within the committee process, though yesterday he said he would not thwart an effort to sidestep the judicial proceedings panel if lawmakers there reject O'Malley's repeal bill.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and death penalty opponent, said his committee is being unfairly accused of handcuffing the legislative process.

"I think we ought to get some credit for at least taking it up," Frosh said after the governor's speech. "We have voted on it. The House has never had a vote. It's totally untested waters over there."

Death penalty opponents say they believe they have enough votes in the House of Delegates to pass a repeal measure, a view echoed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

As the session began, O'Malley said he would do "everything in [his] power" to end capital punishment this year. Last year, O'Malley appointed former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti to lead a commission studying the issue. Civiletti released a report last month urging repeal.

The governor praised the commission yesterday for its efforts, thanking Civiletti, who was in attendance. O'Malley said that abolishing the state's "outdated, expensive and utterly ineffective death penalty" would free up public safety money as lawmakers are grappling with a projected $2 billion shortfall.

Legislators, including Miller, applauded as O'Malley called for both full houses to consider his bill.

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