ANNAPOLIS – Senators reached a compromise on a watered-down bill Wednesday that tightens restrictions on the death penalty, but falls short of the full repeal advocated by Gov. Martin O’Malley.
The amended bill would keep the death penalty on the books, but restrict its use to instances where there was biological or DNA evidence, videotaped voluntary confessions or video linking defendants to a crime.
“This puts to rest this issue for this session,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert.
The Senate is scheduled to hold a final vote on the bill Thursday. The House of Delegates will hold its own hearing on the bill in the Judiciary Committee on March 17.
Miller gave Majority Leader Edward Kasemeyer, D-Baltimore County, credit for crafting the agreement.
Kasemeyer said the Senate had reached the point of a “perfect compromise” by the end of Tuesday’s special session, despite the fact that things got a little chaotic on the floor. He said the amended bill should lessen concerns that an innocent person might be put to death.
“I think the bill in its present form … really has created a win-win situation for all of us,” Kasemeyer said.
It didn’t seem that way after Tuesday’s afternoon session, when Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, lead sponsor of the bill, expressed surprise at the way full repeal had been undone.
“I didn’t see it coming,” she said Tuesday.
The two amendments passed Tuesday, by Baltimore County Democrats Sen. James Brochin and Sen. Bobby Zirkin, added additional restrictions to the use of the death penalty. By approving those amendments the Senate changed the legislation so that instead of repealing the death penalty the bill merely restricted its use.
Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, the chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the risk of putting an innocent person to death was his main reason for advocating repeal.
Frosh said that while the amended bill didn’t fully satisfy that concern, “it does move the ball in the right direction.”
Miller, an opponent of repeal, put it another way.
“We made incremental progress, and that’s not all bad,” he said.
The compromise was reached despite O’Malley’s intense lobbying effort for full repeal. O’Malley, who asked that the bill be introduced, testified on its behalf before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last month.
“While I do not think we can ever make the application of human justice perfect, the amendments passed in the Senate strengthen the standard of proof required to apply the death penalty in Maryland,” he said in a written statement Wednesday.
Several senators who had brought amendments to the floor Wednesday agreed to shelve them in favor of the compromise.
But Sen. Alex Mooney, R-Frederick, offered one that would have ensured that prisoners who continue to kill while in prison would still be eligible for the death penalty. The amendment failed 33-14.
Mooney expressed surprise that repeal supporters agreed to the compromise position, since they previously had said they wanted a full repeal without exceptions.
“So they reversed themselves, essentially,” he said.
Several supporters of the bill expressed regret that some of the issues highlighted by the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which recommended abolition by a 13-9 vote, were not taken into account.
Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, a member of the commission, said that the debate had basically ignored the commission’s findings.
He cited findings of racial and geographical disparities and a real risk of executing an innocent person, which he said was “hopefully a risk we’ve helped to diminish somewhat with the legislation.”
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.
Gladden vowed to bring the bill back each year in its pure form until it passed. In so doing, she invoked William Wilberforce, the English legislator who brought a bill to end the slave trade to Parliament years before it eventually became law.
After the session, Gladden explained why she accepted the compromise.
“My high school teacher said if you can’t get the stars, grab the moon,” she said. “So that’s what I’m doing, just grabbing the moon.”