The House of Delegates approved new restrictions on the death penalty in Maryland on Thursday, sending the much-debated plan to the state's anti-capital punishment governor, who has said he will sign it into law.
Amid a national debate over executions, Maryland's evidentiary limitations will become the most stringent of any of the 35 states that have capital punishment on the books, legal experts say. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, had sought to make Maryland the latest state to abolish the death penalty, as New Mexico did this year. But the closely divided Senate chose instead to restrict the kinds of evidence needed for capital cases, and the House followed suit.
O'Malley said in a statement that he will sign the legislation "in the coming weeks."
"While it is not the full repeal that we had hoped for, I want to thank the Maryland House of Delegates for voting to strengthen Maryland's death penalty law," O'Malley said.
Prosecutors will now be able to seek the death penalty only when they have DNA or biological evidence, a videotape of the crime or a video-recorded confession by the killer. Some death penalty supporters, including Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, have said the new plan will "nullify" capital punishment because it is so restrictive.
Some senators are planning a separate bill this year that would add fingerprints to the list of evidence acceptable in capital cases, but death penalty opponents are urging lawmakers to reject that proposal, pointing to recent studies concluding that prints are unreliable.
Delegates originally appeared poised to approve a full repeal, but relented at the governor's urging because not enough senators supported it. But the 47-member Senate did overwhelmingly support death penalty reform.
Just before Thursday's final House passage, 87-54, dozens of delegates rose to speak about their decision. Among them was Del. Susan L. Aumann, a Baltimore County Republican who voted in favor of the restrictions. "I think it makes it better," she said. Many other Republicans and Baltimore County representatives opposed the plan.
Also voting in favor of the restrictions was Del. Craig Rice, a Montgomery County Democrat who supports the death penalty and whose relatives were murdered decades ago.
"As a proponent and supporter, we need to lay to rest the concerns and fears that we are putting to death innocent people," Rice told his colleagues, saying he believed the restrictions would help accomplish that.
Other delegates lamented what they perceived as the end of capital punishment in Maryland. Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican and death penalty supporter, said opponents "cleverly killed the death penalty in Maryland."
Jane Henderson, director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said that even though her group's repeal push failed, that "this bill takes a meaningful step forward in protecting innocent people from being wrongly sentenced to death and executed in Maryland."