State Senate gives preliminary OK to death penalty repeal

The Maryland Senate appears poised to pass Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill to abolish the death penalty as early as Wednesday after turning aside all efforts to weaken the legislation.

Senators gave their preliminary approval to the bill Tuesday, setting the stage for a final Senate vote as soon as the weather permits. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Wednesday's session could be canceled if an expected snowstorm is severe enough, but expressed doubt that that would happen.

Approval by the Senate would send the legislation to the House of Delegates, where repeal supporters believe they have enough votes to send the bill to O'Malley for his signature.

Supporters of capital punishment tried repeatedly to crack what appears to be a solid bloc of support for repeal. They offered amendment after amendment to scale back the bill to what they called a "partial repeal" that would allow executions for murders deemed especially heinous — multiple killings, contract murders, slayings of law enforcement and correctional officers, murders on school grounds.

All were defeated with votes to spare. The roll calls indicate that supporters of repeal have a solid 27 votes — three more than necessary for passage.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, the floor leader for the pro-repeal forces, said he's optimistic about the outcome.

"I think a majority of the Senate has made up its mind that this is the direction we're going," said Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat.

One of the leading opponents of repeal, Republican Sen. Joseph M. Getty of Carroll County, said his side is unlikely to prevail.

"I think the governor has worked this bill very hard prior to session and early in session and secured the votes he needs to make sure it's passed," Getty said.

He said opponents hadn't decided whether to attempt a filibuster before the final vote, but conceded that Miller likely has the votes to stop debate.

The governor's bill would make Maryland the 18th state to abolish capital punishment. Maryland has five men on death row, for murders that date back to 1983, but has not executed a prisoner since 2005. Since 2006, Maryland has operated under a de facto moratorium as a result of a court decision.

Opponents of repeal resumed the debate Tuesday with an amendment proposed by Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Republican who represents Harford and Baltimore counties, that would have allowed capital punishment for those who hire contract killers. It was rejected on a 25-19 vote. On Monday night the Senate rejected an amendment that would have retained capital punishment for the contract killers themselves.

Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, proposed creating an exception for murder committed by someone already under a sentence of death or life imprisonment. He pointed to a Michigan case in which a prosecutor declined to prosecute a lifer who strangled a fellow inmate, saying there was no way to add to his punishment. The amendment failed by the same margin.

Repeal opponents also recounted the details of especially shocking murders from the recent past — including the Washington-area sniper killings of 2002 and December's Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut.

Getty offered an amendment that would have created an exception to repeal for murders committed on the grounds of a school or day care facility. It was turned down 24-21 on the closest vote during the amendment process.

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