ANNAPOLIS – A bill to temporarily halt executions in Maryland quietly received a preliminary favorable vote in the Senate after a week of intense and emotional political maneuvering.
The amended Senate version requires a study of possible racial disparity in Maryland’s capital sentencing to be finished by Dec. 31, and the moratorium to last a year beginning July 1.
Originally, the bill called for a two-year hiatus to allow the University of Maryland study to be completed. It was to be finished in fall 2002, and the waiting period was to extend for another year – until June 2003 – so lawmakers could consider its findings.
Surprisingly, there was no discussion before the Friday vote. Opponents expected a motion to strip the shorter time limits. But proponents changed their tack and accepted the amended bill rather than face a certain filibuster of the original version.
“There was an effort to hold the bill up by . . . getting supporters to fight over the amendments,” said Sen. Clarence Mitchell, D-Baltimore. The General Assembly session will end Monday, so opponents were trying to let the clock run out without a vote.
Opponents were caught by surprise at the bill backers’ willingness to accept the amendments, Mitchell said.
Legislative maneuvering on the floor and behind the scenes also was fast and furious during a late night Thursday session when discussion on the measure – scheduled last – began after 9:30 p.m. The bill’s opponents, led by Sen. Walter Baker, D-Cecil, moved quickly to delay further discussion until the following morning.
“It’s been interesting watching the action on this bill . . . the shenanigans,” said Majority Leader Clarence Blount, D-Baltimore, as he moved to adjourn the session.
Voices rose in anger and tempers flared among senators after the Thursday evening session. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, angrily chastised Legislative Black Caucus members who accused him of trying to kill the bill.
“That’s an absolute and total falsehood,” Miller said, “I’m going to demand a retraction.”
Miller then stormed into the Senate lounge and castigated a group of Black Caucus members over the statements made by Sen. Clarence Mitchell, D-Baltimore, and Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore.
Mitchell was conciliatory about the incident Friday. “It was a mistake on my part to accuse President Miller of something I had no evidence of,” he said.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee took up the bill Tuesday, despite strong opposition from Chairman Baker, who vowed it would die there without a vote.
Miller pressed Baker behind the scenes for a committee vote. “I’m against the bill. . . but I will definitely not use my office to oppose the bill,” he said.
Baker finally relented to political pressure and scheduled the bill last of 86 to be considered. “Let’s just say we’ve all got bosses,” Baker said about his decision to bring the bill up for a vote. But the moratorium was shortened a full year by an amendment in committee, where it narrowly passed 6-5. The amendment also specifies that the massive study be completed six months ahead of schedule.
The House of Delegates passed a death penalty moratorium with the longer time frame on an 82-54 vote. Mitchell said that version will die in Baker’s Judicial Proceedings Committee. The Senate version, which must still pass the House, is the one he expects to take precedence. – 30 – CNS-4-06-01