"This is a phenomenal day," he said. "We can't punish the guilty by walking over the innocent — ever."

Jealous said he isn't sure opponents will petition the repeal to referendum, but he promised that if they do, the NAACP will contest it. The organization hopes to get 26 states to overturn the death penalty, and says it would then petition the U.S. Supreme Court to declare capital punishment a cruel and unusual punishment.

"We are committed to going the distance," he said. "This is one of our biggest state-level priorities this year, and it will remain so until it is clear it is completely over."

More than 300 men and women have been sent to their deaths by Maryland courts since the first recorded execution in 1638. In recent years, the death penalty has been used sparingly in the state — with only five executions in the past half-century. All were carried out by lethal injection between 1994 and 2005.

For most of Maryland's history, the death penalty was broadly accepted as the appropriate punishment for a wide variety of crimes — including, in its early years, witchcraft and horse theft. The means of execution evolved over time from gruesome methods such as burning at the stake to hanging, the gas chamber and — since 1994 — lethal injection.

Maryland state archivist Edward Papenfuse said that throughout the state's history, there has been an undercurrent of opposition to capital punishment. "Until the 1960s, it was a very small minority opinion, as far as the powers that be," he said.

On Friday, delegates offered emotional arguments from the floor to keep or repeal capital punishment.

Del. Ted Sophocleus, a Democrat, recalled mopping up blood from a murder in his drugstore in the 1980s. He said he would not regret keeping the death penalty for heartless killers. "You're not going to make me feel guilty for pulling that switch."

Del. Bill Frank, a Catholic and one of two House Republicans to vote for repeal, said he became a "reluctant convert," swayed by advocates' pleas.

"The worst of the worst, believe it or not, were created in [God's] image," Frank said.

Other lawmakers said they cast votes to keep or end the death penalty because their constituents convinced them. One said he was swayed by repeal advocate Bonnita Spikes, widow of a murdered man, who sat in the balcony above the debate holding a photo of her late husband. Still others were swayed by impassioned pleas from colleagues.

"I always say the floor debate doesn't move us; we vote how we vote," said Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat whose change of heart on the death penalty drew applause. "Today was the first day in 10 years I actually listened. … I know I couldn't live with the thought we took an innocent life."

Proponents of capital punishment noted that Maryland's current, narrowly written law requires a high standard of proof. They argued that it was a good compromise that has allowed prosecutors to use the threat of the death penalty in plea bargains.

"We're losing that prosecutorial tool," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Republican from Calvert County.

Eighteen Democrats joined 38 Republicans in voting against repeal.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch called it one of "the most compelling issues" in his tenure.

"It was very tough vote for a lot of people," said Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat who described his own views on capital punishment as evolving over the decades to become a voice for repeal.

"Many people struggled," Busch said. "I think in many respects, it was one that people ultimately voted their conscience and their own personal beliefs."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

ecox@baltsun.com

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