Death penalty limits advance

The Baltimore Sun

A House of Delegates committee approved the Senate's plan yesterday to restrict capital punishment to cases with specific kinds of evidence, a major step toward added limitations on Maryland's death penalty that could receive final legislative approval as soon as next week.

Gov. Martin O'Malley had called on the Senate to abolish the death penalty, and the House appeared poised to follow suit. But the governor urged delegates this week to abandon the repeal in favor of the Senate plan.

In the view of some death penalty supporters, however, the limitations are tantamount to a repeal.

When the 47-member Senate rejected O'Malley's repeal attempt this month and instead approved limitations on the existing statute, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat and death penalty supporter, said his chamber would not take up any further debate this session. O'Malley, a Democrat, and other death penalty opponents, acknowledged that reform was the best they could hope for this year.

"With today's vote, we are now a step closer to a significant reduction in the possibility that an innocent person will be executed by the state of Maryland," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and House Judiciary Committee chairman who opposes the death penalty. Rosenberg's repeal bill, which he urged his colleagues to vote down because of the Senate's unwillingness to revisit the issue, was rejected yesterday.

Under the Senate proposal, prosecutors could seek capital punishment only in murder cases in which the crime was caught on videotape, the defendant confesses on video tape, or DNA or biological evidence links the defendant to the crime. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a former Montgomery County prosecutor and death penalty supporter, said this week that the legislature's proposal "significantly limits the death penalty so as to almost nullify it in the state of Maryland."

Yesterday's vote by the Judiciary Committee means the full 141-member House likely will take up the death penalty debate next week. If it gains approval in that chamber, the reform bill would go directly to O'Malley's desk.

"It's great news, marking another step forward to increase the standard of proof required to execute someone in the state of Maryland," said Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman.

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