Death repeal stymied

Gov. urges compromise on capital punishment

General Assembly 2009

March 14, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,

Gov. Martin O'Malley is urging members of the Maryland House of Delegates to abandon their effort to repeal the death penalty and instead adopt an alternative that limits capital cases.

Even though a majority of the House appears to back repeal, key delegates are joining the governor's call, including the speaker of the House and the lead sponsor of a death penalty abolition bill. Their support could mark the end of the repeal effort for at least the next two years.

O'Malley, a Democrat who made repeal a top priority this year, acknowledged yesterday that abolishing the death penalty would not be possible unless the closely divided Senate gained new members after 2010 elections. The chamber rejected a repeal this month, choosing instead to restrict the kinds of evidence permissible in such cases.

The governor said he is "prepared to go forward" with new lethal injection regulations that a court said were needed before executions in Maryland could resume, and that he would begin looking at the cases of the five men on death row.

"The Senate has spoken," O'Malley said in an interview yesterday. "I would have preferred that we repeal the death penalty, but we have made considerable progress with the Senate's version. I plan to testify in favor of that rather than going back to a deadlock."

The House Judiciary Committee meets Tuesday to debate both the repeal and the Senate proposal, but death penalty opponents and House leaders said it has become clear that the Senate's reforms are the only option this year.

House repeal proponents at first vowed to forge ahead, since the support was much greater in that chamber. The repeal bill includes almost 60 co-sponsors from among the 141-person chamber.

In a critical switch, Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg of Baltimore, the lead sponsor of the House's legislation and a Judiciary Committee member, said yesterday that he will ask his colleagues to choose the Senate plan instead. A week ago, he said delegates shouldn't settle for less than a repeal.

Rosenberg, a Democrat, said legal experts have convinced him that "we would be making significant progress in reducing the risk of an innocent person being executed" under the Senate plan.

"There's also the political reality of this is the best bill we can pass this term," he said. "So I decided to support the Senate bill, period."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he had recently spoken with the governor, the Senate president and some death penalty opponents who advised that the House should accept a revised death penalty statute instead of attempting to repeal it.

"Sometimes politics is the art of the possible," said Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat who has historically supported the death penalty but has concerns about the fairness of the state's application of it. "Do you pass something that founders in the Senate and then nothing changes? Or do you take something that is somewhat of a middle ground?"

Jane Henderson of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions said she was "extraordinarily disappointed" in the demise of the repeal. "That said, some action is better than no action," she said.

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat and death penalty opponent, said he had hoped his fellow Judiciary Committee members would approve a full repeal.

"I'm disappointed with the advocates, that they are willing to give up their principle for a slight move," Anderson said. "I guess it's a matter of practicality, but practicality is not something you would want to consider when you have an issue as important as the death penalty."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat representing Prince George's and Calvert counties, strongly opposes a repeal but voted to limit capital punishment. He has said his chamber would not consider alternative House legislation.

The Senate's repeal bill failed in committee but was resurrected on the floor through an unusual parliamentary procedure that Miller said he allowed as a courtesy to the governor. The repeal attempt was quickly thwarted, and instead a plan emerged to allow capital punishment only in murder cases where there is DNA evidence, a video recording of the crime or a voluntary, videotaped confession by the killer.

If it becomes law, experts say Maryland would have one of the narrowest capital punishment statutes in the country. Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, a death penalty proponent, says it would severely limit prosecutors' ability to seek capital punishment.

Five convicted murderers have been executed since Maryland reinstated the death penalty in 1978. But in December 2006, the state's highest court ruled that lethal injection regulations had not been properly adopted, effectively imposing a moratorium. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that execution by lethal injection is constitutional, a decision that required Maryland to begin redrafting its regulations.

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