ANNAPOLIS – With just one vote to spare, a controversial bill to stop Maryland’s use of the death penalty for three years made its way out of a Senate committee Friday.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee approved the bill, 6-5, and it now goes to the full Senate.
“A study showed there are two very serious problems with the death penalty,” said Chairman Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery. “There is a third problem that everyone recognizes about the possibility that an innocent person could be executed . . . I think that we need to find remedies for those problems first.”
A University of Maryland study released in January found racial and geographical bias in the application of the state’s ultimate punishment.
Having read the study and listened carefully to the briefing by the study’s main researcher David Paternoster, Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, said he “respectfully” disagrees.
“I support the death penalty and I think at the end of the day if you look at the people on death row there is nobody on it who doesn’t deserve to be there,” Brochin said.
Brochin cited the case of Steven Oken, convicted in 1991 for the 1987 murder of Dawn Marie Garvin, and said Oken “doesn’t deserve to live.”
“I think (those on death row) committed horrific crimes and I don’t see the flaw, I really don’t,” he said.
Oken was set to become the first person executed in Maryland since 1998 until the state’s high court stayed his death warrant on Feb. 11 pending appeal.
Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick, called Oken a “poster child” for the death penalty and voted against the bill because he was concerned about judicial delays.
“Looking at Oken, people have waited 16 years for the law to be applied . . . and I was not interested in continuously giving more reasons for appeals,” Mooney said.
Mooney was not swayed by the results of the university study and said he already had concerns about the state’s application of the death penalty.
“I want to make sure it’s fair, but the fairness issue should be focused on economic status and not race,” he said.
A moratorium is unnecessary, said one committee member, and is unlikely to become law, given Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s opposition.
“Our death penalty is very carefully drafted . . . I don’t think that we should mess around with a moratorium,” said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel. “What do we tell the victims’ families?”
Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, D-Montgomery, said he generally favors the death penalty, however, he wants to make sure it’s administered correctly.
“Seeking to make it a better system isn’t a bad thing,” he said. “We need to make sure that we are doing it right and minimizing the potential of executing anyone who is innocent.”
Garagiola wanted to clarify the fact that the moratorium would not stop prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, rather, it would not allow for any executions.
“All this says is that you can’t execute . . . Those on death row aren’t going anywhere now. They aren’t walking the street.”
Delighted with the committee’s decision, Delegate Salima S. Marriott, D- Baltimore, said she hopes for the same results on the House side, where she filed an identical bill.
“This gives the governor a reality test,” she said. “I think we had an excellent hearing and if people were listening people would want to stop the ultimate penalty and move to a system that is bias-free.”
In other business Friday, the committee approved a bill to increase the standard of proof in death penalty sentencing, but rejected the bill dubbed “Dawn’s Law” — named after Garvin — which would have made all first-degree murder cases eligible for the death penalty.
The bill’s primary sponsor Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, had a feeling it would be rejected.
“There was talk from the state’s attorney about not having enough discretion,” she said. “I knew I didn’t have the votes, just as I knew the moratorium had the votes.” – 30 – CNS-2-28-03