Senate committee passes death penalty reform bill


A state Senate committee passed a death penalty reform bill yesterday designed to streamline the lengthy appeals process, but rejected the governor's request to limit the scope of Maryland's harshest punishment.

In a 9-2 vote, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee passed the bill, which proponents say would reduce the time from sentencing to execution to six years.

Fourteen people are on death row in Maryland, some of whom have been there off and on for at least the past decade. No one has been executed since 1961.

The bill now moves to the Senate floor for a vote.

A companion bill is scheduled for a hearing Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill made it through the Senate committee largely intact yesterday, except for a section in which the governor hoped to limit the ability of juries to impose the death penalty. Gov. William Donald Schaefer had proposed removing four of the 10 justifications for imposing a death sentence under state law.

In particular, he wanted to exclude arranging or committing contract killings, murders in prisons, and killings during an escape from custody.

Six justifications for imposing the death penalty, including killing during the commission of a rape, kidnapping or carjacking, would have remained on the books.

The idea was unpopular from the start. It became even more so after a Baltimore County prosecutor complained it might save a drug lord who had paid to have two federal witnesses murdered.

Committee members quietly killed the proposal yesterday.

The majority of the bill, though, deals with reducing the time it takes to put someone to death. For instance, it would cut the time defendants have for post-conviction filings from 240 days to 90 days.

Defense attorneys have fought the limits, saying they won't provide enough time to prepare and would scare private attorneys away from death penalty appeal cases.

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