Senate set for a divisive debate today on the death penalty

Maryland senators are bracing for a divisive debate this morning on capital punishment, with two influential state leaders pulling lawmakers in opposite directions.

A staunch death penalty supporter, Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller has vowed not to lobby on the issue. Yet some senators said he has been discouraging them from approving a procedural move needed to bring repeal legislation to the Senate floor.

On the other side, Gov. Martin O'Malley, a fellow Democrat, has been lobbying hard for repeal, sending out mass e-mails yesterday and over the weekend, leading a rally last week and scheduling an appearance this morning with two former governors who now oppose the death penalty. Yesterday, O'Malley cautioned against any obstruction that would prohibit senators from casting a vote for or against repeal.

In a recent Baltimore Sun survey, a narrow majority of senators said they would reject a full repeal.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, Senate majority leader and a death penalty supporter, predicted the repeal effort would fail because even some death penalty opponents are wary of deviating from the tradition that allows committees the final say on legislation assigned to them.

Last week, the Judicial Proceedings Committee rejected O'Malley's effort to abolish capital punishment, which would normally kill the legislation. But Miller said that, as a courtesy to the governor, he would allow a procedural move to resurrect the bill. He also said he would allow some debate on the merits of the death penalty as senators consider voting on the procedural move.

Kasemeyer said there are senators who believe that a vote to reject the committee's decision could introduce "disorder and chaos."

Sen. John C. Astle, an Anne Arundel Democrat and one of three state senators who have not taken a position on the death penalty, said he is "still struggling" with how to vote on capital punishment. But he said he would heed Miller's caution against voting on the procedure that would proceed the repeal.

However, there are also some senators who oppose a repeal but support having a full debate on it.

Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat and death penalty proponent, said the full Senate should take up the repeal "or it'll just keep coming back year after year."

Brochin would not commit to voting either way on the procedural move.

"I'll have to see what we're debating," he said. "Will it be a technicality, or the issue itself?"

Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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