Capital punishment supporters argue that retaining the theoretical threat of the death penalty both satisfies a sense of justice and gives prosecutors a bargaining chip to get a sentence of life without possibility of parole. The death penalty is necessary, they argue, for a convict with a life sentence who kills a correctional officer while in prison.

Thirty years ago, Sen. John Astle came to the General Assembly as a supporter of the death penalty. This year, repeal advocates see him as an ally, though he says he has reservations.

The Anne Arundel Democrat has been visited by Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden of Baltimore and Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent years on death row before he was exonerated by DNA evidence. But Astle says he's still not ready to vote for repeal without deciding how to punish inmates with life sentences who commit another crime.

"Even when I was a proponent, you still have this feeling inside that it's a horrible thing to deliberately take someone's life," he said.

Sen. Ron Young, a Democrat from Frederick, said he has grappled with the death penalty for decades, since he prepped for a college debate. He knows repeal advocates count him in their corner, but he says he's approaching the vote "with hesitation."

"There's that emotion and passion. 'Damn it, [the murderers] didn't care, so why should I?' But I'd like to think I'm better than that," Young said.

The lobbying efforts have not touched the resolute, whose convictions are swayed neither by party nor argument.

"I think to myself, 'What if my daughter was a victim of one of these crimes, or a family member?' " said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat who supports capital punishment.

"It's more from the gut," Garagiola said. "It would be different if Maryland had a hundred-some people on death row and we were executing people every other week. In this state, it's used sparingly to begin with."

Sen. Ed Reilly, an Anne Arundel Republican and minority whip, created a page of talking points against capital punishment. They include that fiscal conservatives should support repeal because it is less costly than the death penalty, though he relies on his moral conviction as a Catholic.

"As a leader of the caucus, it would be inappropriate for me to stand on the floor and twist arms and try to convince people. It is a very, very personal decision to all 47 members of the chamber," Reilly said. "Even if I wasn't in leadership in the Republican caucus, I probably wouldn't be an active participant. There's plenty of people out there motivating others."

ecox@baltsun.com