Death penalty repeal may go to full Senate despite committee vote

Lobbying efforts by death penalty opponents will intensify this weekend, even though a bill to abolish state executions died yesterday in a key Senate committee.

Ordinarily, the "unfavorable" vote by the Judicial Proceedings Committee would end debate. But because of a major push this year by the governor, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he will entertain a rarely used parliamentary maneuver to allow the full chamber to resurrect the bill "as early as next week."


That sets up a fierce debate on capital punishment that could tie up business in the Senate for hours, if not days. It's likely the last serious chance for repeal proponents before the 2010 election, and they are planning a major final push.

Gov. Martin O'Malley "will be having multiple conversations" with undecided senators "throughout the weekend," said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.


Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said her advocacy group will be "pulling out all the stops" in coming days to persuade fence-sitting senators by mobilizing phone banks and visiting churches, encouraging people to e-mail and call their representatives in Annapolis.

"We will leave no stone unturned," she said.

And on Tuesday, the first day the repeal bill could come to the Senate, two former Maryland governors and other senior officials will come to Annapolis to urge lawmakers to replace capital punishment with a sentence of life without parole.

Death penalty supporters, meanwhile, are counting votes to make sure they retain their slim majority in the 47-member Senate. If a repeal bill passes the Senate, approval by the House of Delegates is expected.

Miller, a tenacious arm-twister who wants to keep capital punishment, deflected questions yesterday about whether he has kept a promise not to lobby members on the hot-button moral issue. "That's hard to say," he said, acknowledging that he has been counting votes. "I wouldn't call that lobbying."

Miller's willingness to entertain a full-floor debate could reflect his confidence that the repeal effort will ultimately fail. A recent survey by The Baltimore Sun showed that 19 senators favored a full repeal and 24 opposed it. Four senators declined to state their position.

Moreover, the parliamentary procedure being contemplated faces several practical and philosophical obstacles. Miller will allow a motion from the floor essentially rejecting the committee vote and re-introducing the bill before the entire chamber. Such a move would subvert the privilege that committees typically have in vetting legislation.

If that happens and the bill goes to the floor, the Senate must then vote again to bring it up for preliminary approval, known as "second reader." At that point, the simple repeal bill would likely encounter a barrage of attempts by opponents to water it down with amendments. Too many amendments - such as allowing execution of child-killers or police-killers - could ultimately dilute support from repeal backers.


That's just one scenario envisioned by pro-repeal Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the committee that rejected the bill yesterday. Frosh said his "optimistic" assessment is that the repeal camp is "just one vote short" of resurrecting the bill and still needs to change minds.

Henderson, however, predicted victory on the floor and noted that lawmakers used the rare parliamentary technique when they reinstated the death penalty in 1978.

"It's an historical mirror," she said. "Maybe there's a little bit of poetry here."

For the handful of undecided Democratic senators such as Bobby Zirkin, a vote on the death penalty means disappointing either the leader of your chamber or your governor.

Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, acknowledged the tension but said "nobody is pressuring me into doing anything." Zirkin said he has "no moral problems" with the death penalty, just nagging concerns about the chance that an innocent person might be executed. He said he planned to spend the weekend talking the issue over with as many constituents as possible.

The committee vote yesterday was a 5-5 tie, with pro-death penalty Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, absent. Under committee rules, a bill requires an absolute committee majority to move to the full chamber.


Several of those delivering "no" votes said they would support a partial repeal, but an amendment from Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican, was rejected. Mooney's proposal would have allowed the death penalty only to punish a murderer who is already serving life without parole.

Sen. Bryan Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican considered a potential swing vote this year, called his "no" vote a "heart-wrenching" decision.

"To me, it's not a political issue; it's an issue of the heart," said Simonaire, who was personally lobbied by O'Malley yesterday to support the repeal.

Simonaire said that he would favor limiting the death penalty only to cases where there is DNA evidence supporting a murder conviction but that he could not support a full repeal.

The brief committee discussion yesterday was a preview of the arguments likely to eat up hours on the Senate floor next week. Keeping capital punishment entails the "real risk that we will execute an innocent person," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat.

But proponents of capital punishment said they still believe in the deterrent power of the penalty, particularly for prisoners already serving life sentences. "The thing that keeps haunting me is the person serving a sentence of life without parole," said Sen. Norman Stone, a Baltimore County Democrat. "He or she can become a designated killer in prison" and face no further penalty, he said.


A recent survey found that a majority of Marylanders support the death penalty, but the level of support has decreased in recent years. Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, five men have been executed 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.

what's next

* Death penalty opponents, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, will make a final push in favor of abolishing capital punishment.

* Senators will decide next week whether to reject their own committee's vote to kill a repeal of the death penalty.

* If the committee vote is rejected, repeal could be voted on by full Senate.