The House Judiciary Committee yesterday overwhelmingly approved Acting Gov. Blair Lee's proposal to restore the death penalty in Maryland, thereby renewing the General Assembly's five-year-old battle to enact a constitutionally sound capital punishment law.
Simultaneously, the committee voted to kill a number of other proposed capital punishment proposals, including one by a key opponent of the death penalty that would have mandated life imprisonment without hope of parole for such crimes as mass murder or the murder of a policeman.
While the House committee was beginning to weed some of the alternative proposals and to fine-tune the administration bill, the state senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee opened up its debate on the subject, focusing on the question of how much flexibility to leave a trial judge in a capital case.
In both houses, the central questions as to the merits of the death penalty received only passing attention, as opponents of capital punishment seemed to realize that concerted efforts to defeat the issue in committee would be fruitless. Rather, they are expected to focus their efforts to kill the death penalty law on the floor.
For three out of the last five years, the legislature has passed a death penalty measure, but all of these laws have had some sort of constitutional defect and no one convicted under the bills' provisions has been executed.
"Every aspect of this bill is (based on) at least one of the bill's (from other states) that have been declared constitutional," House judiciary committee chairman Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery) said yesterday after his committee voted 17 to 4 to send Lee's bill to the House floor.
The bill allows the penalty to be inflicted on a defendent who is found guilty of any one of 10 specific kinds of murder including mass murder, muder during the commission of a robbery, arson or rape, murder of a police officer, murder commited by a prison inmate, and murder of a kidnap victim.
A person who hires someone else to commit a murder also could be sentenced to death under the proposed law. The House committee added an amendment that excludes from the proposal any other murder defendent who did not actually do the killing himself.
The bill also provides a two-stage trial for a murder defendent who may be subject to the death sentence. The first part of the trial would determine the defendant's guilt or innocence, and the second part would determine whether the death penalty should be imposed.
That second determination would be made by the trial jury unless the defendent had pleaded guilty, the trial had been held before a judge without a jury, or the trial jury had been dismissed for some reason.
During the second portion of the trial, the measure would require the jurors consider possible mitigating factors, such as the defendant's age or whether the defendant was under duress at the time of the murder. The jury also must unanimously agree on the death penalty before the judge can impose it.
The administration's death penalty bill was aired yesterday in a Senate committee along with a slightly different measure sponsored by Sen. John C. Coolahan (D-Baltimore County).
The main difference centers on the weight given to a jury's sentencing recommendation. Under the Lee bill, the jury's decision is binding on the judge, whereas the Coolahan measure makes the recommendation advisory.
The distinction could be importatn, some committee members noted, if defense lawyers representing murder defendants began shopping for a judge known to oppose capital punishment.