Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he was relieved by the Senate vote.

"Nobody listens to the stories of the folks who committed these horrible crimes without some wish for vengeance, but this is the right thing to do," he said.

The bill does not directly affect the inmates currently on death row, but it expresses the Senate's view that if the governor commutes their sentences, it should be to life without parole. Raskin said that under the state Constitution, the legislature could not put any statutory limit on the governor's commutation and pardon powers.

The last time Maryland executed a convicted murderer was in 2005, when Wesley Baker, 47, received a lethal injection for the 1991 killing of 49-year-old Jane Tyson in the parking lot of Westview Mall.

Like four of the five men on Maryland's death row, Baker was an African-American whose victim was white. A 2003 study by University of Maryland researcher Raymond Paternoster found that killers of white victims were two to three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks. He also found wide discrepancies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, with killers who committed their crimes in Baltimore County far more likely to receive the death penalty than those in Baltimore city.

Disparity in sentencing was one of the chief arguments raised by supporters of repeal, along with the cost of administering the system and the possibility of error.

Critics of the governor's bill argued that execution should remain an option for punishing the "worst of the worst," including inmates who commit murder in prison and killers who murder in the course of a rape.

"We are talking about crimes against humanity," said Sen. Christopher Shank, a Washington County Republican.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs recounted the details of a particularly gruesome murder from Maryland's recent past — the 1987 torture, sexual assault and murder of Dawn Garvin by Steven Oken in Baltimore County. Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, said the victim's family believes in the biblical injunction that those who kill deserve to be executed, as Oken was in 2004.

"It's for Dawn Marie Garvin's family," she said in explaining her no vote.

Shari Silberstein, executive director of the anti-execution group Equal Justice USA, said final enactment of repeal would make Maryland the sixth state in the past six years to abolish capital punishment. She said her hope is that Maryland's likely action increases the momentum behind repeal efforts nationwide.

"There are several states teed up. Delaware and Colorado are looking possible this year or next," she said.

Silberstein said what's happening in Maryland and the role of O'Malley are symbolic of a broader cultural shift in attitudes toward the death penalty. She said both executions and death sentences have been on the decline nationally and that opposition to capital punishment is no longer politically dangerous.

"Five or 10 years ago, a governor who wanted to be president would not have made the death penalty such a banner issue," she said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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