By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2009
A Maryland Senate committee narrowly rejected Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill yesterday to repeal the death penalty, but the measure will likely be debated by the full Senate next week under a rare procedural move.
The vote by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee was seen as a setback for O'Malley (D), although repeal supporters said they are hopeful that the bill's fate will improve when all 47 members of the Senate weigh in.
"I think the prospects are pretty strong," said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, offering a forecast at odds with that of the Senate president and several other observers, who said the odds of passage are long.
The committee voted 5 to 5 on a motion to send the repeal bill to the floor with a favorable recommendation. That was one vote shy of a majority needed from the 11-member committee, one of whose members was absent.
Normally, such a vote would effectively kill a bill. But as a courtesy to O'Malley, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) repeated yesterday that he would allow some debate on the Senate floor.
"In fairness to the proponents, in fairness to the governor . . . we're going to let it out," said Miller, who supports capital punishment.
The debate is likely to come on a motion to allow the full chamber to consider the bill despite its "unfavorable" recommendation from the committee. The rarely used motion would need the support of a majority of members, or 24 senators. Even if the bill clears that procedural hurdle, it could face a filibuster, further complicating passage.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a repeal supporter, said he thinks securing 29 votes to break a filibuster could be "exceedingly difficult."
Arguments prior to the committee vote yesterday were familiar on an issue that has been hotly debated in Annapolis since O'Malley took office in 2007. The governor has made abolishing capital punishment a priority this year.
Repeal supporters argued that the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime, is costly and risks taking an innocent life. Opponents raised the specter of a prisoner, already serving a life sentence, who repeatedly kills others in prison.
That prospect "keeps haunting me," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County).
The committee also rejected an amendment that would allow the death penalty to be imposed only in the cases of people who kill while in prison.
O'Malley spent the past several days lobbying committee members, and aides suggested that he would continue to the full chamber leading up to next week's debate.
"Today's action is the first step in having the repeal of the death penalty considered by the full Senate," O'Malley said in a statement.
His efforts included a meeting yesterday with Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel), who had said publicly that he was conflicted about the legislation.
"This has been a heart-wrenching decision for me," Simonaire said before casting a vote in committee against the repeal. He said he remained concerned about executing innocent people but was troubled that some death-penalty repeal advocates also support abortion, positions he finds at odds.
Voting in favor of the repeal were Frosh, Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore), the committee vice chairwoman and co-sponsor of the measure with O'Malley; Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery); Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George's); and Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery). Voting against were Simonaire, Stone, Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County), Sen. Larry E. Haines (R-Carroll) and Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick). Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford), a death penalty supporter, was absent.