Maryland Governor Pushes Death Penalty Repeal Before Crucial Senate Vote

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

With a pivotal vote expected today on his bill to repeal Maryland's death penalty, Gov. Martin O'Malley yesterday flooded supporters with e-mail, phoned and met with wavering senators, and even ended an unrelated news conference by reading aloud an extended passage in which Robert F. Kennedy decries the degrading nature of violence.

The frenzy of activity came as the full Senate, as a courtesy to O'Malley (D), prepared to hold a rare debate on a bill rejected by one of its committees. The outcome is in doubt, with several senators expressing uncertainty about how they will vote and confusion about the rules that will govern today's floor session.

"I'm undecided, and he's working hard," said Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George's), one of the lawmakers summoned to O'Malley's office yesterday.

O'Malley sent at least four rounds of e-mail to supporters and constituents yesterday afternoon. Two came from his campaign account, urging supporters to contact their state senators.

"The vote tomorrow is expected to be very, very close, and results may very well hinge on last-minute decisions by just a handful of senators," read a third e-mail, from O'Malley's state government account.

A fourth was sent out by the Maryland Democratic Party under O'Malley's name.

Repeal supporters are expected to make a motion today to bring O'Malley's bill to the floor, despite its failure -- in a 5 to 5 vote -- to get majority support from the Judicial Proceedings Committee on Friday.

The procedural motion would need the votes of 24 of the 47 senators to succeed. Even if that hurdle is cleared, the bill could face a filibuster on the floor, further complicating passage.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) was among those who said that they remain conflicted on the issue. "My biggest problem with the death penalty, far and away, is the idea that we could execute an innocent person," Zirkin said.

Zirkin said he is considering voting for the procedural motion, which could allow him to propose amendments designed to safeguard against wrongful executions.

Zirkin said he had talked to O'Malley about the bill several times, including recently, and was not given a hard sell. "I enjoyed having an intellectual, philosophical, almost religious conversation with the governor," Zirkin said.

He said he had also heard from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), a death penalty supporter. Zirkin would only characterize that conversation as "different" from those with O'Malley.

Several senators said lobbying by supporters of capital punishment has been far less aggressive. "They're not nearly as organized," Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said.

Middleton said he plans to vote against repeal, despite a personal plea from O'Malley. But Middleton said he promised the governor that he would help break a filibuster.

Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, which is lobbying for O'Malley's bill, also reported stepping up phone calls and e-mail to senators in recent days. Jane Henderson, the executive director, said e-mails to senators originating from the group's Web site have numbered in the thousands since the weekend.

The group is also planning a news conference this morning, shortly before the Senate is scheduled to convene, featuring several high-profile death penalty opponents, including former governors Parris N. Glendening (D) and Harry R. Hughes (D).

A news conference on energy policy yesterday yielded one of the more-unexpected moments of the death penalty debate. O'Malley took out a compilation of Robert Kennedy's journals and speeches, "Make Gentle the Life of This World," and read a passage in which Kennedy decries violence, including that imposed by the state.

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