By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009; 3:55 PM
The Maryland House of Delegates voted 87 to 52 today to approve some of the nation's tightest restrictions on death penalty cases, sending a bill to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has indicated he will sign it.
The measure will 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 considers the bill "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.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore) told his colleagues that the bill would significantly reduce the possibility of wrongly executing people.
Opponents of the bill said the measure would do much more than that.
"You have cleverly and successfully killed the death penalty in Maryland," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore County), who argued that the bill's restrictions are so strict that prosecutors will not be able to bring capital cases.
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 state's punishments for murder include life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The bill that the House passed 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.
Capital punishment supporters made several more attempts today to amend the bill so that it would apply more broadly. An amendment was defeated that would allow the death penalty when correctional officers are killed, even if the new evidence standards are not met. That change failed 75 to 61.