Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick) is proud of his conservative record in the Maryland legislature.

But as a devout Catholic, he is also guided by his religious beliefs.

Today, as Maryland begins to debate the death penalty, Mooney finds himself wrestling with how to deal with a bill that calls for abolishing capital punishment and replacing it with life without parole.

"I am conflicted," said Mooney, a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee, which is scheduled to hear testimony on the bill today. "I try to look at it from a moral and philosophical point of view. Is it right to use the death penalty when there is another option, life in jail?"

With five of 11 committee members signed on to the bill, Mooney could be the vote that determines whether the repeal legislation gets shelved or makes its way to the Senate floor. Usually a reliable conservative vote -- he opposed expansion of the state's hate crimes definition to protect gays and lesbians two years ago and the stem cell research bill last year -- he said he's undecided.

The Catholic Church opposes the death penalty, and Mooney worries about innocents being put to death. But the 35-year-old senator said he has qualms about a complete repeal. He said he wonders whether exceptions should be made for people who murder police officers or prison guards.

Mooney said the issue is sensitive enough that it might deserve a full airing on the Senate floor, where amendments could be offered to make the bill "more moderate." He shakes his head almost in disbelief at his use of the word.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) plans to testify in favor of repealing the death penalty during legislative hearings today in the Senate and the House. Aides said O'Malley, who is Catholic, will argue that the cost of prosecuting death penalty cases in Maryland far exceeds the cost of lifelong imprisonment and that capital punishment has not proved to be an effective crime deterrent. He explained his position in a Washington Post op-ed article today.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore), a lead bill sponsor, said O'Malley's backing of the legislation has made her optimistic about the bill's passage.

"It feels like it has mega-energy," Gladden said. "When you have friends in high places, it makes some difference. For years, I've been feeling like I'm whistling in the dark."

The death penalty is an issue, like abortion or same-sex marriage, that finds many lawmakers firmly planted on one side of the debate.

Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County) is among those who oppose the repeal effort. Stone introduced a bill that would lift the de facto moratorium recently put in place by the Maryland Court of Appeals. The court ruled last year that the state's procedure for carrying out executions was adopted improperly.

"I just think it does have a deterrent value to it," said Stone, who also sits on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "What about the person serving life in prison who decides to kill a prison guard? Do we give him another life without parole? He only has one life to give."

Unlike Stone, a large number of lawmakers find themselves uncertain, weighing the political fallout that could come with a vote for or against a repeal against their moral convictions.

Although polls show that a majority of Americans support capital punishment, there is evidence of growing unease about executions.

"I'm doing a lot of soul-searching," said Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's). "While I don't believe the death penalty should be used because of the racial bias that's been proven, the question is: Should it still be on the books?"

Gladden said if people are wrestling with the issue, they are seriously weighing the pros and cons, which gives her hope for the repeal.

"This is a very personal issue," Gladden said. "I can't rationalize it for people."

Advocates for the repeal have been lobbying lawmakers, organizing individual meetings, holding news conferences and scouring the halls of the State House for impromptu discussions.

Maryland Citizens Against State Executions scheduled news conferences across the state last night with former death row inmates cleared of wrongdoing.

Proponents of the death penalty have been less vocal.

The Maryland State's Attorneys' Association decided several weeks ago not to take a position on the legislation.

Mooney said more than a half-dozen of his constituents came this week for Catholic Day to urge him to vote for the repeal. "I think I've only had one person come down for Catholic Day in the past," he said.

He has heard from one member of his district urging him to vote against the repeal.

As Mooney recently strolled along State Circle, making his way to a committee hearing, he was stopped by Kirk Bloodsworth, who was convicted of rape and murder in 1985.

"Sen. Mooney, I'd like to schedule a meeting with you," said Bloodsworth, who was exonerated in 1992 after serving eight years, two on death row.

"Everybody thought I was guilty," said Bloodsworth, who has written a book about his experience. "I've been going room to room, office to office, telling them to read my story."

Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.