Further changes sought to Md. death penalty law

Bill would add fingerprints, photos to usable evidence

March 11, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Five months after enacting tight restrictions on Maryland's seldom-used capital punishment statute, state lawmakers are considering another revision.

State senators dismissed a repeal of the death penalty last year in favor of a hastily crafted compromise plan. The new law means that prosecutors can seek the death penalty only in murder cases in which there is DNA evidence, a video recording of the crime or a videotaped confession by the killer.

It appears that just one prosecutor has filed capital charges since the law took effect Oct. 1. Wicomico County State's Attorney Davis R. Ruark is seeking the death penalty against James Leggs Jr., a registered sex offender accused of kidnapping and killing 11-year-old Sarah Haley Foxwell of Salisbury days before Christmas.

Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, wants to add fingerprints and still photographs to the list of evidence that can be used to initiate a capital case.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger testified in favor of the bill Wednesday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, saying "it makes absolutely no sense" to dismiss fingerprints and photographs but allow DNA and video recordings.

On the other side of the debate, Katy C. O'Donnell, chief of the state public defenders' aggravated homicide division, which handles capital cases, said lawmakers sent a clear message last year. "We don't want just reliable evidence," she said. "We want evidence with heightened reliability."

She and others raised questions about fingerprints, saying that more judges - even in Baltimore County, where the death penalty has traditionally been used the most - have expressed doubts about the reliability of fingerprint evidence.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, backs Stone's plan, but it is likely to be a tough sell in the House of Delegates. The House committee that would consider the measure favors repealing the death penalty.

Five men are on Maryland's death row. The last execution was performed in December 2005. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, opposes the death penalty. His administration and a committee with many anti-death penalty lawmakers have been reviewing and revising the state's execution protocols for the past few years, effectively instituting a moratorium.

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