O'Malley Calls for Tighter Restrictions on Death Penalty

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By Michael Frost
Capital News Service
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

ANNAPOLIS - With his hope of repealing the death penalty likely dashed for this year's legislative session, Gov. Martin O'Malley called Tuesday for tighter restrictions on the use of capital punishment in Maryland, even as opponents argued the proposed legislation went too far.

O'Malley urged the House Judiciary Committee to pass a bill that would require biological or DNA evidence, videotaped voluntary confessions or video linking defendants to a crime in order for cases to be eligible for the death penalty.

He had lobbied hard for a full repeal of the death penalty before the Senate replaced repeal with these restrictions.

"I continue to believe that the day will come that we repeal Maryland's death penalty, even if we recognize that that day might not be here, yet," O'Malley said.

He acknowledged that the bill was short of the repeal that he and many others had hoped for, but said it still represented progress over "a very flawed current status quo."

Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, lead sponsor of the House bill, spoke in favor of the bill despite his preference for full repeal. He said it would significantly reduce the likelihood of executing an innocent person.

"The political reality is that we have a significant step forward with this legislation," he said.

Some death penalty supporters worried that the bill is too restrictive, citing numerous examples that would not be covered by the legislation.

Scott Shellenberger, state's attorney for Baltimore County and a member of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, spoke against the bill. He said it did not make sense to legislate judicial standards, and that doing so inevitably created loopholes.

"This is what happens when you legislate in a vacuum," said Shellenberger, a death penalty supporter.

Attorney General Douglas Gansler agreed with this sentiment in a telephone interview, calling the bill "ill-conceived, ill-thought out and awkward."

Gansler expressed concern about the qualification of photographs, ballistics evidence and non-videotaped confessions in capital cases, which are not directly referred to in the wording of the bill.

"Even if you stand on top of someone and unload your gun into a person, you can't get the death penalty," he said.

Gansler added that such a case would not be eligible even if the crime was captured in a photograph and the suspect confessed on audiotape in front of several witnesses. He also said the legislation would not allow fingerprints to qualify a case for the death penalty.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who also supports the death penalty, did not share the same concerns.

As written, "it's clear fingerprint evidence is admissible," he said after Tuesday morning's Senate session.

Miller has expressed opposition to holding any more votes on the bill in the Senate. He said that other bills could be used to clarify that fingerprint evidence would be included under the statute if questions remained.

Only one of the five inmates currently on death row, Heath Burch, would have been eligible for capital punishment under the proposed legislation, Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gansler, said in an e-mail.

Burch's case included DNA evidence.

Five men have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in Maryland in 1978. A de facto moratorium has been in place since 2006, when the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the state's lethal injection protocol did not comply with state law.

If the General Assembly passes a bill that maintains the death penalty, O'Malley has indicated that he will help implement regulations to allow executions to resume in the state. But that doesn't mean his opinion has changed.

"The so-called civil taking of human life is not just," he said.

Capital News Service's Dylan Waugh contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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