The House of Delegates moved closer to abolishing Maryland's death penalty Wednesday night as it rejected changes that attempted to turn Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill into something less than full repeal.

In the first of several key tests, delegates voted 77-61 to reject an amendment that would allow capital punishment for inmates already incarcerated for murder who kill again.

The House worked into the night rejecting amendment after amendment — most offered by Republicans — before giving the bill preliminary approval shortly before 9 p.m.

The bill is likely to come up for a final vote in the House Friday. Because it was not changed from the Senate version, its expected approval there would send the legislation to the governor for his signature. The Senate approved the measure 27-20 last week.

After the vote, O'Malley hailed the votes and what he called the "civil" tone of the debate.

"I am encouraged that we're one step closer to repeal, but we still have plenty we have to do to continue to make our state a safer place," he said. The governor added that opponents could come up with a never-ending recitation of "horrendous cases," but "the fact is the death penalty is ineffective."

Death penalty supporters offered amendments Wednesday designed to put pro-repeal lawmakers on the spot by forcing them to cast unpopular votes to spare the lives of future perpetrators of heinous crimes. Among them were proposals to retain capital punishment for slayers of children, firefighters and police officers, as well as mass murderers and inmates who kill while attempting to escape. Foes of repeal continued to up the ante — at one point proposing amendments that in turn would create exceptions for terrorists who kill 10, 100 or 1,000 victims.

Mindful that any exception could derail the bill, death penalty opponents held together to vote down all proposed changes — as the Senate did last week. Each amendment was defeated with votes to spare. The votes showed Republicans virtually unanimous in their opposition to repeal, while support was concentrated among Democrats in the Baltimore and Washington regions.

Their adversaries wouldn't give up without a rhetorical fight, however.

Del. C. T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat who offered the amendment creating the exception for repeat murderers in prison, said the death sentence is sometimes necessary.

"If you have an individual who's told you he's going to kill again and again, how are you going to stop him?" Wilson said. "They say it's not a deterrent. It's not supposed to be. It's punishment."

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, who said he was speaking as a Calvert County delegate rather than a Republican Party official, urged members to adopt the amendment. If they didn't, he said, lawmakers would be "throwing our family members, throwing our loved ones, our people in the prisons to the mercies of convicted murderers."

But Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore City Democrat who served as floor leader for the bill, said it did not make sense to pass a "partial repeal" measure.

"You cannot maintain this system. The problems with this system do not disappear with the facts of the case," said Rosenberg, a sponsor of repeal for many years.

The bill would make Maryland the 18th state in the nation to repeal its death penalty. Since 2009, the state has operated under one of the strictest capital punishment statutes in the country in terms of the evidence required for a death sentence. Prosecutors can seek the death penalty only when they have DNA evidence, a video recording of the crime or a video-recorded confession by the killer.

O'Malley's push this year for repeal is backed by a coalition that includes the NAACP, the Legislative Black Caucus and various religious groups including Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Maryland has five men on death row for murders that date back as far as 1983. The legislation does not directly affect them but expresses the General Assembly's sense that their sentences should be commuted to life without parole.

Nobody has been executed in Maryland since 2005, when Wesley Baker was given a lethal injection for the 1991 murder of a 49-year-old woman shopper in the parking lot of Westview Mall. Since 2006, the state has operated under a de facto death penalty moratorium as the result of a Court of Appeals decision striking down the state's rules governing executions.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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