Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly warned that elimination of capital punishment could actually cause more deaths. Without the death penalty, he said, a violent rapist who is eligible for life imprisonment would have little to lose from murdering the victim.

"It's to his benefit to commit a murder to escape punishment," Cassilly said.

But in a counterpoint to such arguments, O'Malley said the average homicide rate in states with the death penalty is higher than in those states without it. He noted that violent crime rates in Maryland have fallen to a 30-year low even as executions have been put on hold.

The NAACP's Jealous and others also argued that studies have shown the death penalty has been irretrievably tainted by racial bias. They noted that far more African-Americans are sentenced to die than are white defendants.

Family members of murder victims spoke on both sides of the issue. The daughter of Lawrence M. Foley Sr., an American diplomat killed in Jordan in 2002 by gunmen connected to al-Qaida, said their execution actually made her feel worse.

"To me, to kill his killers is more violence — a deeper descent into horror," said the Rev. Megan L. Foley of the Sugarloaf Congregation of Unitarian Universalists in Germantown.

Both sides sparred over claims that eliminating the death penalty would save taxpayers money. The state public defender's office spends an average of $1.9 million trying a capital case, according to the Department of Legislative Services, but only about $650,000 on trials in which the death penalty is not in play.

Shellenberger argued that defendants serving life without parole can tie up the courts with appeals just as much as death-row inmates.

But the cost-saving argument could affect whether Maryland voters get the final say on the issue.

The legislation under consideration would allocate $500,000 in expected savings to help murder victims' families. The attorney general's office has said it's unclear whether that provision would make the legislation an appropriations bill. If so, it would not be subject to referendum.

Miller, who has said he expects repeal to go to referendum if it passes, said Thursday the bill should be amended to make it clear that it is not an appropriations bill.

"It's a subterfuge to avoid petitioning it to referendum," Miller said.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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