An emotional debate on the death penalty in Maryland bounced from eloquence to near-hysteria in the state House of Delegates before a bill favoring capital punishment was abruptly advanced over determined opposition early today.
Watching with dispassionate calm while the rhetorical thunder roled about him was Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), floor manger of the bill. "I'm pretty good at counting," Owens had said earlier in the proceedings, an allusion to a previous nose count of the delegates. The calm, therefore, could be attributed to his knowledge of how the vote was going to come out.
After the final passionate plea was delivered and the last insults exchanged, at 12:14 a.m. today, the big machine ticked off a result that Owens already had calculated. Debate on the death penalty, begun three days earlier by members of the black caucus, was ended by a vote of 76 to 55.
High drama and articulate appeals had been interlaced with gutter fighting. The determined protest by the 14 member black caucus, destined for failure from the start, had nonetheless stirred the Assembly, and the power politics that Speaker John Hanson Briscoe and his associates employed to end the debate evoked rancor, even among some supporters of capital punishment.
Del. Arthur G. Murphy Sr. (D-Baltimore), the caucus leader, said he and the other blacks had more than 150 amendments prepared. As they were offered, Owens, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, alternating between patience and sarcasm, urged their defeat, and a complaint House voted them down.
The delaying tactic threatened to keep the 141-member House in session throughout the night, a prospect that prompted Brsicoe to huddle with Majority Leader John S. Arnick (D-Baltimore County) and to devise a plan to cut off the debate.
At 9:30 p.m., Briscoe ordered a recess, during which Arnick offered a deal to the blacks - if they would quit stalling and allow vote on the bill, the leadership would give its blessing to another bill the blacks, favored.
But the blacks balked, so Briscoe resorted to a rarely invoked parlimentary ploy. At a given signal (Briscoe nodded his head), Del. Frank C. Robey Jr. (D-Baltimore) moved "that house Bill 785 (the death penalty) be ordered printed for third reader."
Before a voice could be raised in opposition, Del. Irwin F. Hoffman (D-Washington COunty) delivered the second half of a parlimentary one-two punch moving "the previous question," an action that is not deloatable, and efficiently stopped the amendment process.
But instead of stopping the opponents, the action rallied them, and sparked support from what had been a silent minority of sympathetic whites.
For the next 75 minutes, oratory seldom equaled echoed in the chamber, punctuated with chaotic outbursts of unreason.
Del. Kenneth L. Webster (D-Baltimore), frenetically challenged Briscoe's ruling that permitted the back-to-back motions to be offered without discussion, causing Briscoe to step down from the rostrum in favor of Arnick.
Arnick's usual happy-go-lucky demeanor left him when he needed it most, however, and he shouted into the microphone, defending Briscoe and ordering Webster and others to "be quiet."
"Just wipe us out tonight, just go ahead, go on with your railroad," Webster yelled into his hand-held microphone.
In his rush to resolve the challenge to Briscoe, Arnick misstated the question before the House, and only a hurried walk to the rostrum by an alert Del Donald B. Robertson (D-Montgomery) prevent the confused legislators from voting the wrong way.
As opponents hooted and howled, Arnick ordered the voting board cleared, restated the motion properly, and Briscoe's action was upheld.
The normally unflappable Briscoe returned to the rostrum, and as the clamor continued, threatened to have Webster "removed from the floor."
Slowly, the chaos gave way to a sensitive discussion of the rights of a minority to obstruct the will of the majority.
Arnick, having regained his composure, said "the leadership did all it could to prevent the motion" to cut off debate, but Del. Isaiah Dixon Jr. (D-Baltimore), his voice cracking with emotion, denounced the move as "the most undemocratic thing I've ever seen."
Del. Robert A. Jacques (D-Montgomery), who earlier had critized his colleagues for "remarks that have gone beyond the normal bounds of etiquette," said "we owe it to a minority, let them have their say."
Del. Helen L. Koss (D-Montgomery) said thwarting debate was "indefensible." Del. Lucille Maurer (D-Montgomery) called in "the ugliest moment" of her legislative experience, warning it could lead to "polarization and bitterness."
As the oratory improved, weary delegates who had paced the aisles and lounge for hours, munching sandwiches and sipping drinks, settled into their seats and listened. Some even changed their vote, which had been displayed, but not tallied, on the large scoreboards.
Robertson, chairman of the liberal Montgomery delegation, attempted to ameliorate the factions, praising "the extraordinary efforts on both sides," but concluded that Briscoe had not acted fairly" when he permitted no debate on Robey's extraodinary motion.
Even Robey, a Baltimore high school principal, joined the criticism, saying the House was "bordering on tyranny" and the behavior had "threatened the safety" of members.
Several delegates who said they favor the death penalty sided with the caucus on the question of cutting off debate. "I'll listen to you as long as you want to stay," said Del. Alexander Bell (D-Montgomery), "but then I'll vote no."