House Moves Closer to Approving Death Penalty Bill
By Michael Frost
Capital News Service
Tuesday, March 25, 2009
ANNAPOLIS - The House of Delegates rejected a series of amendments to legislation restricting use of the death penalty Wednesday, indicating that it will likely follow the Senate's lead and send the bill to the governor.
Republican delegates who offered the seven amendments, on the other hand, protested what they said was a move to "rubber stamp" a bill favored by Gov. Martin O'Malley.
O'Malley endorsed the bill after his push for the abolition of capital punishment came up short in the Senate.
The House will hold a final vote on Thursday. Since it is a Senate bill, delegates will be able to offer additional amendments on the floor.
The bill, which passed the Senate March 5, would limit use of the death penalty to cases with biological or DNA evidence, videotaped voluntary confessions or video linking defendants to a crime. Delegates voted down amendments to include audiotape, photographic or fingerprint evidence, as well as one to make contract murders eligible.
Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, lead sponsor of a repeal bill that was shelved in favor of the Senate version, was optimistic after the session. He said the "impressive majorities" indicated strong support for a bill that "significantly reduces the risk that someone who is innocent could be executed by the state of Maryland."
"It's not a perfect bill, but it's a significant improvement on the existing law," he said.
Delegate Craig Rice, D-Montgomery, who had used a personal appeal to urge senators to vote against the original repeal bill, voted against an amendment that would have included contract murder under the statute. Rice's aunt and cousin were killed along with a nurse after his former uncle, Lawrence Horn, hired a contract killer.
"It's difficult, but that's a lot of times what we do here in Annapolis. It requires us to go beyond personal experience," he said.
Rice said that despite his personal involvement with the issue, he voted against the amendment because he felt the bill struck the right balance between addressing concerns about executing innocent people and ensuring culpability for those who are guilty.
"I think it was the right thing to do for victims' families, in that we're creating a much stronger capital punishment process that I think will be fair for all parties involved," he said.
Rice voted in favor of another amendment that would have allowed the inclusion of audiotaped evidence -- something he felt the Senate, in its haste, had left out. That amendment failed 59-79 in the closest vote of the session.
Overall, though, most delegates seemed to heed Rosenberg's advice that passing the bill in its present form was the best way forward.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, has expressed opposition to holding any more votes on the bill in the Senate, which put pressure on the House to pass the bill without additional amendments. This rankled several Republican members of the House.
Delegate Michael Smigiel Sr., R-Caroline, who proposed the amendments that would have included contract murders and audiotaped evidence, said political expediency was no reason for leaving major loopholes in the bill.
"Let's forget about what Sen. Miller said we have to do, and let's show that this House stands independent, that this House can make decisions on its own, and that this House is something more than a rubber stamp for the Senate," he said.
Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, R-Calvert, took the criticism a step further, saying that merely accepting the Senate version and O'Malley's support of it "flies in the face of the bicameral process."
"If the governor's going to decide what the law's going to be in this state ... we can stay home and he can just dictate to us what it's going to be," O'Donnell said.
Five men have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in Maryland in 1978, and five more remain on death row. A de facto moratorium has been in place since 2006, when the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled the state's lethal injection protocol did not comply with state law.
The amendments passed in the Senate were designed to prevent anyone else from suffering the fate of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was sentenced to death based largely on eyewitness testimony.
Bloodsworth spent almost nine years in prison, two of them on death row, before being exonerated by DNA evidence.
For Rice, the evolving law reflected his family's case, where the jury had the option of giving Horn the death penalty and did not. Rice said this took his family a while to accept and understand.
"This is a process," he said. "And it's something where you have to understand that not every verdict's going to come out exactly the way you want it to be."