Del. Craig Rice called his mother Tuesday morning to tell her the Maryland Senate was about to begin a discussion of the death penalty.

Vivian Rice reminded her son that the date had even more significance. It was 16 years ago on March 3 that his aunt, quadriplegic cousin and his cousin's full-time nurse were killed in their Wheaton home. Vivian Rice lived five doors away. She found the bodies.

Stunned by the symbolism of the timing, Delegate Rice, a 36-year-old freshman lawmaker from Montgomery County, dashed off an e-mail to all 47 senators. The message landed in their in-boxes at 2:52 p.m., barely a half-hour before the Senate was to meet.

It immediately - and silently - set the tone of the debate, even though senators never mentioned it as they went through their amendments and arguments.

Under a subject line that read "My personal story ... that I think you should know regarding the death penalty," Rice wrote that his mother still has nightmares about the killers, "and will continue to do so until they are no longer on this Earth."

He told of the personal courage it took for her to testify in court. "She and my family will never be the same," he said.

The closing line screamed in boldface capital letters and underlined: PLEASE DO NOT REPEAL THE DEATH PENALTY.

The plea was printed out and passed around the Senate floor as the sharply divided body decided what to do. Senators quickly chose to preserve the death penalty, while setting conditions that would restrict its application. The decision not to repeal passed by just two votes.

And Rice's words, it is now clear, were on the minds of lawmakers that afternoon.

One senator who said she had been seriously considering a repeal noted Rice's e-mail as a major factor in her decision to vote for restrictions instead.

Sen. Rona E. Kramer, a fellow Montgomery County Democrat, said the delegate raised "an extremely important argument."

"Sometimes, the death penalty goes beyond wanting to make the family feel better," Kramer said in an interview yesterday. "It can be about making them feel safe and secure. The safety and security of witnesses - that hadn't really been raised before."

Rice said he supports the plan that cleared the Senate, which requires DNA evidence, a video recording of the crime or a videotaped confession to pursue capital punishment. The full chamber approved it yesterday, and the House of Delegates will take it up in about two weeks.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who opposes the death penalty, said Rice "touched a lot of people" by sharing his story: "It reinforced to me how deeply personal issues of crime and punishment are," he said.

Vivian Rice said yesterday she was proud of her son's role in the debate.

"It's a rewarding experience to know that someone I gave birth to wants to stand up for what he believes in for his county and his state," she said.

Rice, in his third year after narrowly defeating an incumbent Republican, said few of his legislative colleagues knew about his connection to the high-profile murders.

He was 20 years old and studying engineering at the University of Illinois when the crime occurred. His aunt, Mildred Horn, and Janice Saunders, a full-time nurse who cared for 8-year-old Trevor, were fatally shot. The boy's ventilator was unplugged, and he was smothered. The house was ransacked and a vehicle stolen. Trevor's two sisters, one of them his twin, were not home at the time.

An only child, Rice dropped out of school to be with his mother. (He later completed a computer science degree at the University of Maryland.) It took investigators more than a year to solve the case. Lawrence Horn, Mildred's ex-husband and Trevor's father, had hired a hit man, James Perry. Lawrence Horn stood to inherit his son's estate, worth at least $1 million, from a hospital lawsuit settlement.

Both men were convicted. Horn was sentenced to life in prison and Perry was sentenced to death. Perry's death sentence was set aside because of an evidence issue. The experience convinced Rice and his mother, devout Baptists, that some people are undeserving of mercy.

"I think God has given us leeway to decide things like that," the delegate said. Not everyone in the large family - his mother comes from a family of 14 brothers and sisters - feels the same way, including one of Trevor's sisters.

"We don't really feel like we can say we are for or against the death penalty," said Tiffani Norris, 34, who lives in Elkridge. She and her younger sister have talked about capital punishment and keep coming back to a verse in the Bible: "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord."

Not only is Rice's family divided, but so, too, are the other lawmakers who represent the Assembly's 15th District with him.

Sen. Robert J. Garagiola supports the death penalty; Dels. Brian J. Feldman and Kathleen M. Dumais, oppose it. All four are Democrats. Such divisions "reflect where we are as a state," Rice said.

Rice said he hadn't spoken up about his family's tragedy until recently. Late last month, he stopped to listen to Gov. Martin O'Malley and a group of ministers rallying for repeal just outside the State House.

O'Malley, a Democrat who has asked lawmakers to abolish the "utterly ineffective" death penalty, was talking about how victims want closure that the ultimate punishment cannot give them, in part because of endless appeals. As the governor finished speaking with onlookers and reporters after the rally, Rice saw his chance and approached him.

"I can't tell you how difficult it is as a freshman delegate to go up to the governor," Rice said, "and tell him he is wrong."