The Senate paused its debate of a bill that would make Maryland the 18th state in the nation to eliminate the death penalty after advocates of repeal won a key test vote.
Senators voted 27-19 Friday to reject an amendment that would have created an exception to repeal for especially heinous murders.
Supporters of death penalty repeal expressed confidence that they have enough votes to defeat all the other amendments expected to be offered when the Senate resumes debate Monday. And they expressed confidence they will prevail on the final Senate vote.
"It's clear we have 26 public votes. I don't expect any of them to waver," said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. It takes 24 votes to pass a bill in the 47-member Senate.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, has made repeal part of his legislative agenda for this year. He has received strong support from NAACP President Ben Jealous, who has been a regular visitor in Annapolis since the repeal drive began late last year.
Maryland has five men on death row-- for murders that go back as far as 1983 -- but has not executed anyone since 2005. The state has operated under a de facto death penalty moratorium since 2006, when the state's top court struck down the rules under which executions are carried out.
The repeal bill cleared a barrier last week when it was approved by the Judicial Proceedings Committee, where similar legislation has failed in the past.
Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and the floor leader for the pro-repeal forces, said the committee concluded the death penalty system is not working. He said prosecutors seek capital punishment in less than one-half of 1 percent of eligible cases.
Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin, an Upper Shore Republican, said that shows Maryland's existing law is working.
"You can say it's being used judiciously and sparingly," Pipkin said.
Among those on hand for the debate was Kirk Bloodsworth, the former Eastern Shore waterman who was sentenced to death in a Baltimore County murder case and later exonerated by DNA evidence.
The Bloodsworth case figured prominently in the debate, with repeal proponents pointing to it as an example of the danger of executing an innocent person.
"With the death penalty, there's no going back. Death is forever. Death is different," Raskin said.
Sen. Richard Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican, offered an amendment to keep the death penalty for murders in which arson, rape, serious sexual offenses, robbery or armed carjacking are aggravating circumstances. Colburn recounted in graphic detail the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell in Salisbury by a repeat sex offender, who later was sentenced to life without parole.
Shank said Maryland needs to allow the death penalty in cases like the Foxwell murder.
"There is evil that walks among us," he said. "We have to leave that option for the worst of the worst."
Two Republicans, Sen. Allan Kittleman of Howard County and Sen. Edward Reilly, joined 25 Democrats in rejecting the amendment. Ten Democrats and nine Republicans voted in favor.