Senate panel hears bill to end death penalty

A passionate group of advocates — including NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and an innocent man who was on Maryland's death row for two years — came to Annapolis Wednesday to argue against the state's death penalty.

"For this state to continue to spend money killing the killers that are already going to spend the rest of their lives in cages ... quite frankly that is an extravagance that the state can no longer afford," Jealous said.

National advocates targeted Maryland this year in repeal efforts, believing the state's Democratic-dominated legislature had the votes needed to end the death penalty. Supporters believe they could pass a repeal measure in the full House and Senate, but acknowledge that they are a vote short to move it out of a key Senate committee.

Underlining that point, Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, the lead sponsor of a bill to eliminate the death penalty, floated the idea of petitioning her legislation to the Senate floor, a move that requires the consent of 15 senators. But the Baltimore Democrat said Wednesday that she decided the maneuver would be "political suicide" because she — and anyone who agreed to sign her letter — would be viewed as "circumventing the committee process."

Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat who wants to repeal capital punishment in Maryland, said Gov. Martin O'Malley's intervention would be needed to pass the bill. He noted the governor's success this year in advocating for a measure to legalize same-sex marriage.

O'Malley tried — and failed — to repeal the state's death penalty in 2009. Instead the Assembly severely restricted the circumstances under which capital punishment could be sought, in an attempt to reduce errors. Now it is only allowed in cases where there is DNA evidence, a taped confession or a video recording of the crime.

That compromise was brokered by Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who is pleased with how the new law is working. He said it is very unlikely that Maryland would execute an innocent person with the restrictions in place.

One who disagreed was Kirk Bloodsworth, who was convicted in 1985 of raping and killing a 9-year-old girl. After fighting the conviction for nine years — including two on death row — he was exonerated after DNA evidence pointed to someone else as the killer.

"My life was changed forever because of a crime I didn't commit," said Bloodsworth, 51, of Cambridge, who wore a tie with a double-helix — the structure of DNA — for his appearance before the committee. "Even human beings with the best intentions are still subject to errors."

During the roughly one-hour hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, only Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger testified in support of the status quo.

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad