The General Assembly took an important step toward repealing Maryland's death penalty Thursday night when a key committee, for the first time in decades, approved a bill to end capital punishment.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings committee voted 6-5 to send Gov. Martin O'Malley's death penalty bill to the Senate floor, with Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, dropping his long-held opposition to repeal of capital punishment and providing the decisive vote.
It was one of two major pieces of the governor's agenda to move to Senate floor. The same panel also began crafting changes to O'Malley's gun-control package that proposed some of the nation's strictest gun laws and the governor declared his top priority for the General Assembly session.
The committee rolled back some of the provisions requiring handgun licenses and barred from gun ownership people involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. It gave the bill initial approval in a 7-4 vote close to midnight.
The bill repealing the death penalty is expected to go before the full Senate next week. Advocates say they have the votes there and in the House of Delegates to pass it, and they welcomed Thursday's action by a committee that has been seen as an obstacle to their position.
"I'm elated that the committee has come to a place where they recognize it's time to have this vote on the floor," said Jane Henderson, executive director of Citizens Against State Executions. Henderson said the NAACP's push for repeal in Maryland was "instrumental" in changing the dynamic this year.
With Zirkin's vote, she said, repeal advocates count at least 26 Senate votes for the bill — two more than needed. Henderson said she's confident the Senate would muster the 29 votes needed to end a filibuster if one is attempted.
Before casting his vote, Zirkin told the committee he would probably never be comfortable with his decision no matter which way he came down. He said he was torn between his emotional response toward brutal murderers and the "legal and practical" arguments that the death penalty system doesn't work.
"As heinous and awful as these individuals are, I think it's time for our state not to be involved in the apparatus of executions," he said.
NAACP President Ben Jealous and Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, who debated the death penalty Thursday night before a crowd of about 50 at a forum hosted by The Baltimore Sun, had differing reactions.
Jealous cheered the committee's action and said that if repeal succeeds in Maryland, it could help push a U.S. Supreme Court decision to eliminate it throughout the country.
"This is a state that has repeatedly sought to evolve and be a beacon for the rest of the country," Jealous said.
Shellenberger, a Democrat who told the committee when he testified that the death penalty should be kept for the "worst of the worst," said he was "obviously very disappointed."
"I still have some hope that when it hits the Senate floor that there will be enough opposition and hopefully some constituents will let their senators know how they feel," he said. "There's still always a chance that we may hang on and keep the death penalty."
The Judicial Proceedings vote for repeal was the first for that committee since 1969, when the measure was defeated on the Senate floor, according to the Assembly's library staff. The panel temporarily blocked repeal in 2009, but the measure was brought to the floor in a rarely used parliamentary maneuver. The bill was amended on the floor that year to retain the death penalty but to allow it only in cases where the prosecution could meet one of the highest evidentiary standards in the country.
Besides Zirkin, voting for repeal in committee Thursday were the panel's chairman, Sen. Brian E. Frosh; Sen. Lisa A. Gladden of Baltimore; Sen. C. Anthony Muse of Prince George's; and Sens. Jennie Forehand and Jamie Raskin of Montgomery County. All are Democrats.
Voting against the bill were Democratic Sens. James Brochin and Norman Stone of Baltimore County and Republican Sens. Nancy Jacobs of Harford, Joseph Getty of Carroll and Christopher Shank of Washington County.
Opponents of repeal argued that there are cases in which the death penalty is the only appropriate sanction — especially when a convicted killer commits another murder in prison.
"We have murders in our prison system. We have murderers who say they are natural-born killers," Getty said.
Five men, all convicted murderers, remain on death row in Maryland for killings that go back as far as 1983. The state has not executed a prisoner since 2005. The Maryland Court of Appeals imposed a de facto moratorium in 2006 when it threw out the rules under which executions are carried out. Those regulations have not been replaced amid complaints from death penalty supporters that the O'Malley administration has been dragging its feet.
After approving the repeal bill, the committee for nearly four hours debated O'Malley's gun control bill. Among other things, the legislation would ban the sale of guns classified as assault weapons, limit the size of gun magazines to 10 bullets and institute a licensing system for handgun purchases. The measure also would limit access to guns by some people with mental illnesses.
The committee rolled back governor's controversial plan to require a license to buy a handgun. The panel unanimously cut the number of training hours required from eight to four, halved the license fee from $100 to $50 and doubled the life of a handgun licenses to 10 years.
Even with the changes, gun-control advocates praised the bill "as the best way to prevent gun violence," said Vincent DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence.
The committee also carved out an exemption to allow the manufacture of assault weapons to be sold outside Maryland — a nod to Beretta USA, headquartered in Prince George's County. Other changes ensured hunters under 21 years old would be allowed to possess ammunition and expanded the people barred gun ownership to include those involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.
Senators who supported the gun package acknowledged there was more work to be done on rules that limit access to firearms for people with mental illnesses, raising concerns that current provisions may deter people in crisis from seeking help.
Frosh, the committee's chairman, said he didn't think the gun proposal "was perfect" and that more changes could be expected on the Senate floor.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve said Thursday that he thinks both death penalty repeal and stricter gun laws will muster at least the 71 votes they need to pass the House of Delegates.
"These are going to be controversial and emotional issues, but I suspect we can find the votes for both," said Barve, a Democrat from Montgomery County.
Barve said he believes consensus is growing in Maryland for both measures, and lawmakers' votes will reflect that.
A poll released last month by the Annapolis-based firm OpinionWorks showed Maryland voters favor the assault weapons ban 62 percent to 35 percent, and back the gun-magazine limit 71 percent to 24 percent. The poll did not ask about handgun licensing.
On the death penalty, the same poll found that Marylanders are closely divided — with 48 percent opposing repeal and 42 percent favoring it. Other polls have found that when voters are asked whether life without parole would be an acceptable alternative, a majority say yes.
Death penalty repeal supporters have said they were determined to bring a "clean" bill to the Senate floor — that is, without any amendments creating exceptions for certain types of murders.
Brochin offered an amendment allowing capital punishment but narrowing Maryland's death penalty even further so that murderers could only be executed on the strength of DNA evidence. It was defeated 6-5. He tried again with a proposal creating an exception to repeal in the case of multiple murders in the same incident. It failed by the same margin.
Frosh stripped language from the bill devoting $500,000 in anticipated annual savings from repeal to assistance to survivors of murder victims because of concern the provision could preclude a referendum on the issue.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has said he expects that if the General Assembly approves a repeal law, opponents will gather enough signatures to petition the measure to a vote in the November 2014 election. He said nothing should be included in the bill that could keep the issue from the voters.
Despite an attorney general's opinion to the contrary, there was concern that the financial-assistance language could be interpreted as making the measure an appropriations bill. Under the state Constitution, such bills cannot be petitioned to referendum.
Opponents of the gun bill offered more than a dozen amendments as the panel worked into the night, but nearly all were rejected.
"There were a lot of good modifications, but not enough," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican. "People were not taking the proposals seriously."
Shannon Alford, the National Rifle Association's lobbyist in Annapolis, said that while the amended version is better, "it's still a humongous blow to the Second Amendment rights of Maryland's law-abiding citizens."
Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.
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