Death penalty repeal falters

The Baltimore Sun

A proposed repeal of the death penalty in Maryland, which seemed to gain momentum when Gov. Martin O'Malley said he would sign a bill, appears headed for defeat in a key Senate committee.

"I think it's an uphill battle either in committee or on the Senate floor," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which will take up the measure Wednesday.

Death penalty opponents sensed an opportunity to end executions after the state's highest court effectively imposed a moratorium and voters elected O'Malley as governor last fall.

State legislatures across the country are revisiting the issue, and moratoriums have been imposed in at least a dozen of the 38 states that have death penalty laws, including California and Illinois. But in Annapolis, the makeup of the Judicial Proceedings Committee might be a stumbling block to repealing the punishment.

Several lawmakers said the 11-member Senate committee is likely to narrowly defeat the repeal bill as two Baltimore County Democrats, James Brochin and Norman R. Stone Jr., join four Republicans in voting against it. That would leave the measure's fate to the House of Delegates, where backers say that they are making progress. The House Judiciary Committee would have to pass the measure before it could be discussed on the floor.

"Every day I think about permutations and acts of God," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, the sponsor of the Senate bill. " ... I do think perhaps moving the bill out of the House might be helpful in encouraging people here on the Senate side."

As Maryland lawmakers consider the repeal measure, Stone - a death penalty supporter - has sponsored a bill to address the December Court of Appeals ruling that, on technical grounds, halted executions. The high court said that the General Assembly needed to sign off on the procedures used to administer lethal injections or that lawmakers could pass a bill to exempt the lethal injection regulations from the law that requires public review.

Stone's bill would do the latter, effectively reinstating the death penalty before lawmakers could debate the matter.

"This issue should not be held in limbo because of a technicality," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a death penalty proponent who is co-sponsoring Stone's bill. "I think a majority of people in the Senate would support Stone's bill."

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and its House counterpart will hear testimony Wednesday about the death penalty repeal - a measure O'Malley said last month that he would sign. Senators will also learn more about Stone's bill that day.

Baltimore Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Democrat who co-sponsored the repeal measure, said he is hopeful that next week's hearing, which is expected to feature former prisoners who were exonerated, will convince lawmakers. He would not say how close he is to getting the panel's support.

Rosenberg railed against Stone's bill as an effort to avoid a broader conversation about the death penalty by simply addressing the court's technical concerns.

"We shouldn't facilitate state executions," he said.

A potentially decisive vote on the senate panel is Frederick Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Republican and Catholic who would be bucking the official position of his church if he votes with his party and against the repeal. Mooney could not be reached yesterday for comment.

Meanwhile, Brochin said he "will continue to support the death penalty" and that he will strongly consider Stone's proposal.

"I think it has to be looked at," he said. "I think he's on the right track."

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley, said the governor wants both chambers to discuss the death penalty this year but would not comment specifically about Stone's measure.

"The governor feels that the debate needs to take place on the death penalty before there's any discussion on the regulations," Abbruzzese said.

Death penalty opponents are gearing up to make their case before the legislature, an effort to capitalize on what they believe is changing national sentiment on the issue. Coupled with the high court decision, O'Malley's opposition to the policy, which he has said is costly and does not necessarily act as a deterrent to crime, has bolstered a new wave of activism in Maryland to wipe the punishment from the books.

Activists feel that brewing questions about how lethal injections are administered have only helped their cause. They note that even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush instituted a moratorium after a botched injection in that state.

"People who support the death penalty, including Jeb Bush, think there's something wrong with the method we use to execute people," said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. "And that's a complex discussion in and of itself."

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled unanimously last year in an appeal by death-row inmate Vernon L. Evans that procedures for administering lethal injections should be considered regulations and evaluated by a committee of state senators and delegates. Or the General Assembly, the court ruled, could pass a bill like Stone's that aims to circumvent that review.

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed a moratorium in 2002 so racial disparity and other issues could be studied, but that ban was lifted by his successor, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Six people sit on the state's death row; four are black, and two are white.

If lawmakers do nothing this year, abandoning efforts for a repeal or to address the Court of Appeals' concerns, the moratorium stands. Some are supportive of that tactic, saying it will give the General Assembly time to explore how the punishment has been applied and whether there is public support for it. Whisking a proposal - such as Stone's - hastily through the legislature would be a mistake, Frosh said.

"I just think that's a terrible policy," he said. "Apart from the death penalty, it's not a good policy for the General Assembly in any respect."

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