Maryland General Assembly Expected to Approve New Limits on Death Penalty Cases

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009; B01

Some of the nation's tightest restrictions on death penalty cases are expected to win final approval today in the Maryland General Assembly, allowing Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to claim a partial victory after failing to persuade lawmakers to ban executions.

The measure would limit capital cases to those with biological or DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or a videotape linking the defendant to a homicide. Those are among the steepest hurdles faced by prosecutors in the 35 states that have a death penalty.

O'Malley has said he will sign the bill and considers it "a step forward," although it falls short of the repeal bill that he sponsored this year and pledged to do everything in his power to pass.

"In matters of life and death, we should err on the side of making sure an innocent person is not put to death," Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George's) told colleagues yesterday as they rejected a half-dozen amendments that sought to broaden the bill, which the Senate has passed.

Maryland's action comes as several states are rethinking the death penalty. This month, New Mexico became the third state in recent years to abandon capital punishment.

Tightening evidence standards is a different approach, but "it's definitely going to cut death-eligible cases," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. "There aren't any other states that have this list of three things, or anything close to it."

Lawmakers in Virginia bucked the trend this year by expanding capital punishment to apply to criminals who assist in homicides, even if they don't pull the trigger, and to cover those who kill fire marshals or auxiliary police officers. The District does not have a death penalty.

Although Maryland has imposed capital punishment less frequently than some states, its use has generated impassioned debate, particularly over disparities in how often it is pursued in different jurisdictions. The state has executed five prisoners since reinstating the death penalty in 1978. There are five on death row.

Maryland has had a de facto moratorium on capital punishment since December 2006, when the state's highest court ruled that its regulations on lethal injection had not been properly adopted. O'Malley has not issued new rules allowing executions to resume but indicated he would after this year's debate.

The bill on which the House has scheduled a final vote today was hastily crafted in the Senate this month as a compromise between death penalty opponents and those who say that capital punishment should remain an option in egregious cases. Although there is disagreement about some practical implications of the bill, supporters and opponents say it will make it more difficult for prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

Yesterday, Republicans sought to add several categories of evidence that could make a case eligible for capital punishment, including fingerprints and audiotaped and photographic evidence. An amendment that failed would have allowed capital punishment for contract killings, even if the new evidence standards are not met. During debate yesterday, amendment supporters said they were seeking common-sense changes.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil) said that allowing audiotapes would enable prosecutors to seek the death penalty in cases in which police officers are killed while wearing wires that record the crime.

"Who among us is going to say, 'Sorry, you should have had a videotape'?" Smigiel asked.

His amendment, which was defeated 79 to 59, received the most votes of those offered, with many of the chamber's more conservative Democrats siding with Republicans.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), a death penalty opponent, urged his colleagues not to lose sight of the fact that those convicted of murder could still receive harsh punishments, even if they are not eligible for execution.

"Life without the possibility of parole means just that," Rosenberg said. "It's not an insignificant sentence."

The debate appeared guided at times as much by process as substance.

Part of the rationale that bill supporters offered for defeating amendments was to avoid sending the bill back to the Senate for additional consideration. After an unwieldy Senate debate this month, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) indicated that his chamber was done discussing the death penalty this year -- a point he reiterated yesterday.

"We had extensive debate on this issue," Miller, a death penalty supporter, told reporters. "We've made progress, and I think we're going to stop right here this year."

Miller said he is open to a separate bill that would clarify one aspect of the debate. He said senators were surprised by an opinion of the attorney general's office that fingerprints do not meet the bill's definition of DNA or biological evidence. Miller said he is open to a bill effectively overruling that opinion.

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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