ANNAPOLIS – The Senate Wednesday voted to prevent Maryland from making it more difficult to sentence a criminal to death.
The Senate defeated the action 21-25, a vote that came on the heels of another disappointing loss for death penalty foes who supported a moratorium on the ultimate sanction.
Bill opponents rallied lawmakers with a letter from Baltimore County State’s Attorney Sandra A. O’Connor.
In the letter addressed to Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, O’Connor said stiffening the sentencing standard is “certain to empty death row.”
“To change the standard is incomprehensible. The families of these victims and the citizens of Maryland deserve better,” the letter continued.
If passed, the bill would have raised the standard of proof from a preponderance of the evidence to beyond a reasonable doubt, thus making it more difficult to issue a death sentence after a conviction. It would not have applied to any case currently on death row.
The bill, like the moratorium, was filed in response to a University of Maryland study that found racial and geographic bias in Maryland’s application of the death penalty.
Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County, opened debate before the vote saying raising the standard of proof would be problematic.
“If that’s the intent – to empty death row – then pass it. It will eliminate the death penalty in Maryland,” Stone said. “To pass this bill is a mistake. I think we’re opening the wrong door,” he said.
The bill would have been an effective moratorium, said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, a staunch death penalty supporter.
“I voted against it beyond any doubt that there would be appeal after appeal . . . and their attorneys wouldn’t be worth a salt if they didn’t appeal,” she said. “It’s all complicated with my feelings and my constituents.”
The Legislature should make sure the sentence is applied fairly, said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, who also believes it’s a useful tool.
“I know we’re quick on the draw, but these aren’t cowboys and Indians days, these are people’s lives,” she said.
The idea that that raising the bar for death penalty cases could empty death row was “preposterous” said Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore. “The conviction remains. The only thing that changes is will you put them in jail for the rest of their life or kill them,” she said. “This is a bill about frosting, it is not about the cake,” Gladden said. “Even if you change the standard, they are not going to be on the street, they are not coming to your neighborhood and knocking on your door.” Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., D-Montgomery, said courts should be very sure before giving the ultimate sanction.
“That is as clear as we can make it. We amended it so that it can’t apply to anyone on death row,” Giannetti said.
“When people stood up to talk about the (O’Connor) letter it’s easy to wash over the logic and it swayed a lot of people,” he said after the vote. “I thought it would have had a better shot.”
Regardless of the fate of capital punishment legislation, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele said a commission would still be created to review individual death row cases. “I don’t need a mandate to do it,” Steele said. “The same effect can be achieved on a case-by-case review. We’ll put together a strong working commission. We’ll put together a team and move forward.”