Efforts to change Maryland's death penalty laws died yesterday in the General Assembly, as the Senate rejected one measure aimed at reducing capital convictions and the House spiked another that would have required prosecutors to seek capital punishment in more cases.
Though championed by opposing camps, each bill aimed to address flaws in the state's administration of the death penalty, particularly the widespread racial and geographic disparities identified in a study by a University of Maryland professor.
After the study's release in January, lawmakers sought a variety of remedies, ranging from the outright abolition of the death penalty to a measure removing all discretion from prosecutors about when to seek capital punishment. In the end, however, the legislature could reach consensus on none of the legislation, and the state is left with what all sides seem to agree is an imperfect system.
"It's dead," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) of an effort that initially appeared to have gained substantial momentum. "The legislature just said, 'We're not touching it.' "
Frosh was the sponsor of Senate legislation that would have raised the standard of proof for juries seeking the death penalty. The Senate killed the bill yesterday on a 25 to 21 vote. One day earlier, the Senate had rejected by a one-vote margin legislation that would have imposed a 15-month moratorium on executions to study the death penalty more thoroughly. A bill calling for its abolition died in committee earlier in the session.
Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee killed a bill that would have required prosecutors to seek execution in every case that meets the requirements. Under current law, prosecutors have discretion on how to handle each case, and that decision-making process accounts for much of the disparity among counties, according to the University of Maryland report.
"The legislature is burying their head in the sand, saying this will go away," said Jane Henderson, co-director of the Quixote Center, a nonprofit organization that lobbies against the death penalty. "But I don't think these issues will go away."
Those who champion capital punishment, bolstered this year by the election of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), a death penalty supporter, have argued that Maryland's appeals process is too onerous and that the state has executed too few of those sentenced to die.
"With the amount of appeals and the due process that's already allowed in death penalty cases, I don't know how much more sure we can be," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County).
Stone, along with Sens. Philip C. Jimeno (D-Anne Arundel) and Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford), yesterday rallied colleagues to oppose the moratorium measure and Frosh's bill.
There are 12 men on Maryland's death row; as many as seven of them could face execution in the coming months. Three people have been executed in Maryland since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's) said a bill that would create a task force to study problems with the death penalty remains in his committee. But the Senate has killed a similar measure, and Vallario said "there's no point in dealing with a dead bill. The death penalty is not going anywhere this year."
With the General Assembly failing to agree on changes, review of the state's capital murder statutes now falls to Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R), who is leading an informal study. Steele opposes the death penalty.
The study, Steele said, will bring together prosecutors, defense attorneys and activists to discuss whether changes are needed. An initial meeting is being planned for sometime after the General Assembly adjourns April 7, he said.
"In terms of our study, that's going to proceed whether there's a bill or not," Steele said. "Let's get a serious, intellectual discussion and study under way and then come back with serious recommendations."