Md. Senate Passes a Compromise Bill That Falls Short of O'Malley's Plan to Repeal Death Penalty

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009

The Maryland Senate voted 34 to 13 yesterday for a bill that would tighten evidence standards in death penalty cases, rebuffing Gov. Martin O'Malley's effort to repeal capital punishment this year.

Supporters cast the measure, which now goes to the House of Delegates, as a compromise on an emotional issue that would reduce the possibility of executing an innocent person while still allowing the death penalty in egregious cases.

"It raises the bar," said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), a chief architect of the measure, who acknowledged that he is very conflicted about death sentences. "It's not everything for every side."

The bill would prohibit death sentences based solely on eyewitness testimony and require either biological or DNA evidence, videotaped confessions or videotaped crimes to proceed with capital cases.

O'Malley (D) had sought a full repeal of Maryland's death penalty, arguing that it is costly, not a deterrent to violent crime and beneath the dignity of a civilized society.

Five inmates are on Maryland's death row. The state has executed five people since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, most recently in 2005.

Repeal advocates in the Senate said during floor debate yesterday that the compromise measure was the most they could achieve this year.

The vote broke largely along party lines. Thirty-two Democrats and two Republicans voted for the bill; it was opposed by 12 Republicans and one Democrat.

Several of the senators who voted against the bill said they had concerns that some commonly used evidence such as fingerprints and photographs would not be sufficient for death sentences.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick) cited a letter from the Maryland attorney general's office advising that fingerprints would not meet the standards of "biological evidence" contained in the bill.

That, he argued, raised the possibility that someone who killed another person with a knife might not be eligible for the death penalty, even if there are fingerprints on the knife.

Both Zirkin and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said they disagreed with the interpretation of the attorney general's office about fingerprints.

Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard) said that he had planned to vote for the bill but decided that he could not after realizing still photographs would not meet the standards of evidence in the bill.

The bill says that "a video recording that conclusively links the defendant to murder" would make a case eligible for the death penalty but makes no mention of still photographs.

"I want to vote for this bill," Kittleman said. "I really do. . . . But I can't."

Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel), one of the two Republicans who voted for the bill, said he supports the death penalty but is very troubled by the prospect of executing innocent people. Simonaire said he would much rather see the state sentence one or two murderers to life without parole than wrongly impose the death penalty on anyone.

"If we err, let us err on the side of protecting the innocent," Simonaire said.

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