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House votes to repeal death penalty

The General Assembly voted to repeal the death penalty Friday, calling for an end to Maryland's 375-year history of capital punishment and joining a growing number of states outlawing the practice.

After nearly two hours of impassioned debate, the House of Delegates approved Gov. Martin O'Malley's repeal legislation, 82-56, sending the measure to the governor for his signature. The state Senate voted 27-20 for repeal last week.

"We're a better state for ending it," said Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Democrat from Baltimore who has long pushed for repeal.

Delegates spoke of religion, morality and personal loss, as well as grisly murders from Maryland's recent past, in variously trying to persuade colleagues to erase capital punishment from the books or keep it for the most heinous crimes.

"The death penalty is not a deterrent. It is justice," said Del. C.T. Wilson, a former prosecutor and a Charles County Democrat. "I've seen the worst of the worst. It is necessary."

O'Malley, a Democrat, has lobbied for repeal since taking office. Over time, he changed his message from one of morality to one of pragmatism, arguing that the death penalty is expensive and imperfect.

"When we understand how lives can be saved, we have a moral responsibility to do more of the things that work to save lives," O'Malley said. "We also have a moral responsibility not to do things that are wasteful and that are expensive and do not work and don't save lives."

His staff said he likely will sign the bill after the General Assembly session ends next month. The measure is effective Oct. 1.

While opponents of capital punishment celebrated the vote, the legislation's passage in Annapolis may not be final. Death penalty supporters could petition it to the 2014 ballot and leave the question to Maryland voters. If that happens, the law would be put on hold until after the election.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who voted against repeal, predicted such a challenge. Though no specific group has volunteered to head that effort, polls show the death penalty still has the support of a narrow majority of voters.

Five men, all murderers, are on death row in Maryland for crimes that date back as far as 1983. O'Malley declined to answer questions about the fate of those men now that repeal has passed.

Court decisions — including one in 2006 that remains in force — have halted executions in the state for extended periods, but never before has the General Assembly voted to end the practice.

Maryland is the sixth state in as many years where lawmakers have abolished the death penalty and the first south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Seventeen other states have repealed capital punishment.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat who led the pro-repeal camp in the Senate, said the debate hinged on an imperfect justice system and the best way to help the families of murder victims.

"Infallibility and perfection belong to God, not human beings," Raskin said.

Among the groups credited with turning the tide this year were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Roman Catholic Church. The NAACP, led by President Ben Jealous, made Maryland repeal a national priority. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, making common cause with O'Malley a year after fighting him on same-sex marriage, threw the church's support behind the repeal effort. The Catholics' lobbying was joined by a strong push from other faiths.

"I applaud the Maryland General Assembly for choosing to meet evil not with evil, but with a justice worthy of our best nature as human beings," Lori said in a statement after the vote.

Kirk Bloodsworth, who had served time on death row but was later exonerated by DNA evidence, watched from the balcony as lawmakers invoked his name at least five times. The former Eastern Shore waterman sat next to Jealous when the vote count flashed on the board.

Bloodsworth stood up, pumped his arms in the air three times. "Yes, yes, yes!" he said, before catching Jealous in a bear hug.

Bloodsworth said his first reaction was to recall that 28 years ago this week, he was waiting to be sentenced to die for the murder of a 9-year-old girl that DNA evidence would later prove he did not commit.

"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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