Senate may debate death penalty repeal

The Baltimore Sun

An effort led by Gov. Martin O'Malley to end capital punishment in Maryland could be days away from a full Senate debate, a significant move forward for death penalty opponents who have seen their cause fail in a committee the past few years.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee heard testimony last week, and its chairman, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who opposes capital punishment, said the committee will vote by the end of the week. The 11-member panel is closely divided, but appears likely to vote down the repeal, as it did two years ago.

It would take an unusual procedural move to revive the bill at that point. But Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who staunchly supports the death penalty, said yesterday he is willing to make that happen as a courtesy to fellow Democrat O'Malley.

"Regardless of how the [committee] vote goes, I want to give the governor and his proponents their day on the floor," Miller said. "He's the governor. We're going to allow him to have that vote, even though it is somewhat contrary to the rules and the committee system."

Miller's stance may reflect his confidence that the repeal effort will fail. A recent survey by The Baltimore Sun showed that 19 senators favored a full repeal and 24 opposed it. Four senators in the 47-member chamber declined to state their position.

Yesterday, O'Malley said he had "had conversations with some who in the past were identified as undecided and who are now in favor of repealing the death penalty."

He declined to identify those lawmakers. Even if the governor convinces all four undeclared senators, the repeal effort would fall a vote short, The Sun poll shows. Still, death penalty opponents say they are pleased the full Senate will debate the issue. If the committee votes down the repeal as expected, the Senate could take up the issue if a majority agrees to reject the panel's recommendation and substitute the original legislation. With Miller's backing, that is all but certain to happen.

O'Malley has recently dialed up his lobbying efforts. He testified last week and planned to meet last evening with Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican who is on the committee and who voted against a repeal two years ago.

O'Malley is also talking with some senators who have traditionally favored capital punishment.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and close ally of the governor, said he still leans toward keeping the death penalty but has spoken with the governor recently and said he is troubled by the possibility of executing an innocent person.

"If I were to vote for a repeal, it would be on that issue alone," Zirkin said. "I'm still listening to arguments on both sides."

Yesterday morning, the governor marched with priests and ministers from a prayer breakfast to Lawyers Mall outside the State Hall. He dabbed his eyes as the Rev. Eugene Sutton, the bishop of the Episcopal Church of Maryland, recited part of a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sutton said that O'Malley, a Roman Catholic, has "a strong moral compass and political courage."

A majority of Marylanders support the death penalty, a recent survey showed, though the level of support has decreased in recent years.

Five men have been executed in Maryland since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, and another five remain on death row. State executions have been under an effective moratorium since December 2006, when Maryland's highest court ruled that lethal injection regulations had not been properly adopted. The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is still revising protocols.

Baltimore Sun reporters Gadi Dechter and Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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