Move May Aid Death Penalty Repeal Bill

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

With Gov. Martin O'Malley making repeal of the death penalty a top priority this year, lawmakers might invoke a rarely used parliamentary maneuver to spring his bill from the Senate committee that has killed similar legislation in recent years.

Members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee said they are considering sending the repeal bill to the full Senate without making a recommendation on its merits, a move that could significantly increase the chances of its passage. Death penalty opponents say a majority of Senate members would vote for the bill.

In interviews this week, two members of the committee who previously voted against a repeal bill said they are open to letting the full Senate decide the divisive issue. The repeal bill has fallen one vote short in the 11-member committee in the past.

"I definitely think an issue as serious as the death penalty should be debated on the Senate floor," said Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County), a capital punishment supporter.

His sentiments were echoed by Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick), who said he "probably would support that" out of a desire "to let the full body decide the issue."

The strategy is not without risk, including alienating long-serving Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), a death penalty supporter who places a premium on Senate traditions.

"Just because the governor wants a bill to proceed to the floor doesn't mean we abandon the ways of the Senate," Miller said yesterday. "People are elected to take positions on bills."

The option of sending a bill to the floor without an affirmative vote is included in Senate rules, but senators and legislative aides said yesterday that they could not remember the last time the move was used. O'Malley (D) said in an interview this month that he would like to see the full Senate debate the repeal bill "one way or another."

Miller and other legislators predicted a long and emotional debate if the issue reaches the floor, with opponents mounting a filibuster to try to stop the bill. A hearing on the legislation will probably be scheduled next month.

Maryland has executed five people since it reinstated the death penalty in 1978. Five inmates are on death row.

Most of the early maneuvering this session has taken place in the Senate. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has said that he thinks there are enough votes to pass a repeal bill in his chamber but that he would like the Senate to act first given that the bill has died there in recent sessions.

Death penalty opponents said yesterday that they still prefer to secure a majority vote for repeal from the Judicial Proceedings Committee. But failing that, they are exploring other ways to get the bill to the Senate floor.

"We're trying to either switch a vote or bring the bill out without a recommendation," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore), vice chairman of the committee and co-sponsor of O'Malley's repeal bill.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), the committee chairman, said a majority vote by the panel remains his "first choice," but he acknowledged that could be difficult. Sending the bill to the floor without a recommendation is "something we'll address when and if it comes up," said Frosh, who favors repeal.

The membership of Frosh's committee has not changed since 2007, when O'Malley arrived in office and expressed support for repealing the death penalty. This is the first year O'Malley has personally sponsored legislation on the issue.

Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) is among the committee members being heavily lobbied by death penalty opponents. Although he has voted against a repeal in the past, Simonaire has said he is approaching the issue with an open mind this year.

He said yesterday that he is carefully reading a report issued recently by a state commission headed by former U.S. attorney general Benjamin Civiletti calling for abolition of the death penalty.

Simonaire said he thinks the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for some crimes but is concerned about flaws in its application that could result in executing an innocent person.

"Right now, I'm just struggling," he said.

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