State attorney general argues against death penalty curbs

Maryland's attorney general and Baltimore County's top prosecutor, both death penalty supporters, want the General Assembly to abandon what they are calling haphazard and arbitrary restrictions on capital punishment cases approved by the Senate this month.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said in an interview that the Senate proposal is "ill-prepared, ill-thought-out, awkward and clumsy." Under that plan, capital punishment would be limited to murder cases where there is biological or DNA evidence, a videotaped confession, or a video recording of the crime.

And at a House of Delegates committee hearing yesterday, Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger testified that the new guidelines, which proponents say would guard against the execution of an innocent person, needlessly omit crimes where there is convincing evidence of a person's guilt.

"These artificial limits do not make sense in the real world of litigation," Shellenberger said. Baltimore County is responsible for more than half of death penalty cases since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978.

The prosecutor's testimony came after Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who has been advocating a full repeal of capital punishment, called the Senate plan "significant and needed progress." The governor and about a dozen death penalty opponents said they have grudgingly accepted the Senate's restrictions as the only capital punishment reform they could achieve this year.

The 47-member Senate rejected a full repeal and instead adopted evidence limitations suggested by Baltimore County lawmakers. House leaders said their chamber supported a repeal, meaning death penalty limitations would likely be approved.

But Gansler said the plan "significantly limits the death penalty so as to almost nullify it in the state of Maryland." Shellenberger said he would have a tough time seeking capital punishment and told senators a pending Baltimore County death penalty case would not qualify under the new guidelines. (The case likely would remain capital-eligible because the legislation is not retroactive.)

At the House hearing, Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., an Eastern Shore Republican, and Del. Susan McComas, a Harford County Republican, bristled at the suggestion by death penalty opponents that the House should pass the Senate's bill without amendments so that it goes directly to O'Malley's desk.

"Why are we even here if we can't have any input?" Smigiel asked.

Yesterday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who previously said he would reject any deviation from the Senate plan, seemed more open to changes because of a dispute about whether fingerprint evidence would be included in the new guidelines.

"I think all members of the Senate, proponents or opponents, believe that to be the case, at least that should be the case," Miller said. Gansler, Shellenberger and other attorneys have said they do not believe fingerprints are defined in state law as biological evidence.

"If they want to clear it up," Miller said, "I leave that up to House of Delegates and the governor."

Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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