With the outcome all but certain, Maryland's General Assembly yesterday acted out its now-ritualistic consideration of death penalty legislation, with opponents of the measure staging a brief filibuster in the Senate and managing to delay a preliminary vote on the question in the House.
It has been clear since the session began that there are more than enough votes in both chambers to restore capital punishment in Maryland, but the advocates of the death penalty are allowing their opponent the chance to stage a ceremonial fight against it.
"All the players in the band will have time for their solo parts," observed Sen. Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County), "its comparable to The Gong Show.' When a sufficient number of senators get up and hit the gong, it's over."
In the Senate, death penalty proponents III allowed a filibuster led by Sen. Clarence Mitchell, (D-Baltimore) to last three hours before invoking cloture and limiting debate to four hours last night and three hours before a final vote is taken early next year.
Sen. John C. Coolahan (D-Baltimore County) a leader of the pro-death penalty forces, stood confidently in the Senate lounge tallying up the list of committments he had received from senators in favor of the legislation.
The vote to cut off the filiabuster and set ground rules for future debate on the isue appeared to be carefully orchestrated by Senate leaders who sought to extend courtesy to death penalty opponents without tying up business indefinitely.
"Even when you've got a guy beat, there is a normal courtesy to let him talk before you cut him off," said Sen. Arthur H. Helton, Jr. (D-Harford). "Everyone ought to get enough respect to go back home and say they had their day in court."
The Senate and House are considering an administration bill allowing the death penalty for 10 variations of firstdegree murder, including murder of a police officer, mass murder, contract murder and murder of a kidnap victim.
In the House, where parliamentary rules make filibusters extremely dificult, opponents of capital punishment have chosen to fight their battle by proposing a long series of amendments that delay a preliminary vote on the bill.
The patience of the majority of delegates is likely to wear thin by the middle of next week, Del. Arthur G. Murphy (D-Baltimore), the leader of the opponents, acknowledged yesterday. "We have enough sense to realize there's a bending point and there's a breaking point . . .
"We know they've got the votes to beat us," Murphy added. Even so, he said that the majority is obviously allowing the minority some latitude to delay the question - perhaps to soothe some of the bitterness engendered when the deathe penalty debate was brusquely cut off at the end of the last session.
The legislative courtesies, filibusters and parliamentary maneuvers (See DEATH, B4, Col. 5) (DEATH, From B1) seen here yesterday have become a familiar part of each leagislative session in recent years as lawmakers face the troubling question of restoring the death penalty.
For three out of the past five year, the legislature has passed a capital punishment measure, but all of those laws were deemed to have constitutional defects. No one has been executed as a result of those laws.
The opposition to death penalty legislation this year and in the past has been led by members of the Black Caucus, who argue that capital punishment historically has been imposed disproportionately on black defendants.
Sen. Mitchell, who helped coordinate the brief filibuster by drafting 120 mostly technical amendments designed to delay a vote on the bill, explained his strategy for heading off the measure.
"The more confusion you can create, the greater chance you have of winning," Mitchell explained before the filibuster was aborted. "I have seen a lot of things happen in the prolonging of legislation."
A filibuster is designed to hold up legislative business for so long that it jeopardizes the passage of other bills. If it succeeds, a filibuster wins over the support of lawmakers who want to move on to their own pet bills.
To muster a vote of cloture in the Senate, the leadership put together a coalition of death penalty advocates and senators who oppose capital punishment but do not consider the filibuster to be a useful maneuver.
"There is a very delicate line where the rights of a minority supersede the rights of a majority," said Steinberg, who voted for cloture despite his opposition for capital punishment. "I believe we should vote this up or down."
The cloture vote attracted the support of several rural and Republican senators who traditionally allow filibusters to run their course because they are the last-resort tactic of minority legislators to block bills they oppose.
"I don't feel this is an absolutely firm filibuster," said Sen. Edward Mason (R-Western Md.), the Senate's minority leader just before casting his first cloture vote.