O'Malley-Sponsored Bill to Repeal Death Penalty Runs Into a Reluctant Senate

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Maryland Senate gutted Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill to repeal the death penalty yesterday, moving instead during a chaotic debate toward raising the standards of evidence required in capital cases.

With a pair of amendments, O'Malley's bill was dramatically altered to prohibit death sentences based solely on eyewitness testimony and to require either biological evidence, videotaped confessions or videotaped crimes to proceed with capital cases.

"It may be the best we can do," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee who supported the repeal sought by O'Malley (D). "I'd like something more, but it will make it harder to get the death penalty."

Debate is set to resume this morning, with consideration of additional amendments and an uncertain outcome.

Speaking to reporters last night, O'Malley said the bill with the new evidence requirement would be "a move forward" but acknowledged that it fell well short of what he is seeking.

"It's not my goal," said O'Malley, a Catholic who has long opposed capital punishment. "You cannot make the human administration of justice perfect."

O'Malley said he would take the night to talk to senators about how to move forward, suggesting that some of them could have been confused on a 24 to 22 vote that stripped the repeal provision out of the bill. The governor cited two procedural votes earlier in the day in which a slim majority of senators voted to consider the legislation he was pushing.

O'Malley said he was uncertain whether a full-scale repeal could be reinstated in the bill today.

Yesterday's late-afternoon votes capped a dramatic and often confusing day focused on an issue that O'Malley has made a priority in the 90-day legislative session.

After the bill was changed, several senators complained from the floor that they were no longer certain how new amendments would affect the legislation and urged Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) to suspend the proceedings.

"Very obviously, this is not one of the high points in the history of the Senate," said Senate President Pro Tem Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore).

Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, was not ready to concede defeat as the debate hastily wrapped up.

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