Death Penalty Bill's Future Uncertain as it Moves to the House
By Michael Frost
Capital News Service
Thursday March 5, 2009
ANNAPOLIS - A bill further restricting the use of the death penalty passed the Senate Thursday, moving it toward an uncertain future in the House of Delegates.
If the death penalty survives, Gov. Martin O'Malley, who had lobbied hard for a full repeal, has indicated that he will propose new regulations to allow capital punishment to resume in the state.
The Senate passed an amended bill that, instead of repealing the death penalty, would require biological or videotaped evidence in order for cases to be eligible for its use. The bill passed despite concerns it might contain loopholes that would disallow fingerprints or photographs to be used as evidence.
The bill now moves to the House Judiciary Committee, where it will be heard on March 17.
Delegate Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, lead sponsor of the House version of the bill, said the Judiciary Committee would take time to look at the legal implications of the bill as it now stands before deciding how to proceed.
"I think we really need to do a legal analysis of what impact the Senate amendments would have on the administration of the death penalty, and you can't do that overnight," he said.
While he is in favor of full repeal, Rosenberg said the only way to avoid another vote on the Senate floor would be to pass that chamber's version of the bill. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has expressed opposition to any more votes on the issue in the Senate.
The House had shown broad support for repeal before the Senate's latest action.
"The dynamic may have changed in light of what the Senate's done," Rosenberg 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 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 will move to implement protocols that would conform to existing laws, said Shaun Adamec, a spokesman.
The regulations would first have to be approved by the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, he said. Once enacted, the new protocols would allow the death penalty to resume in the state.
"When he was sworn in as governor, he swore to uphold the laws that existed, not the ones he wished existed," Adamec said.
Amidst fears of possible loopholes, the Senate held an extended debate Thursday over what exactly would be covered by the amendments.
Sen. Alex Mooney, R-Frederick, said he was concerned the amendments, as written, would mean that fingerprints and photographic evidence would not be enough to apply the death penalty.
"I want to make sure that we all know what we are voting for," he said.
Sen. James Robey, D-Howard, who served on the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, spoke in support of the bill. He cited the horrors that he had seen during a 32-year career as a police officer as reason for his support for the death penalty, but said that precautions should be taken to ensure the state did not execute an innocent person.
"This will make it very difficult to seek a death penalty case in most cases, but that's fine with me," he said.
The Senate voted 34-13 in favor of the bill.
Senate Minority Whip Nancy Jacobs, R-Cecil, a death penalty supporter, voted against the bill, saying that it wouldn't have covered several of the people put to death in Maryland since 1978.
Jacobs, who served on the Judiciary Committee during her time in the House of Delegates, said that she had great respect for its members and hoped they would not let such a flawed bill come out of their committee.
"Sometimes they do such a thorough job with our bills that we get upset ... but yet in this instance, I am so glad they're there," she said.
After the day's vote, Miller sounded conciliatory.
"I wish the House well," he said. "We did our very best with it."