With little fanfare and even less debate, Maryland's General Assembly enacted legislation yesterday restoring the death penalty in the state for specifically enumerated types of murder.
Final passage of the capital punishment bill came yesterday on a 91-to-42 vote in the House of Delegates. The measure now will go to Acting Gov. Blair Lee III - the man who originally proposed it - so that he can sign it into law.
Unlike previous years, when opponents managed to dilute, alter, or temporarily hold up passage of proposed death penalty legislation, this year's version encountered only a brief perfunctory filibuster in the Senate and a few days' delay in the House.
Nonetheless, one opponent, Del. Arthur G. Murphy Sr. (D-Baltimore), made one last futile attempt to table the measure yesterday, arguing that recent publicity about the issue might have changed a few delegates' minds.
However, Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery) responded by saying, "Frankly, I haven't seen anything that would change my mind on this. We might as well get this out of the way now."
The relatively swift and easy passage of this year's death penalty legislation contrasted sharply with the bitter, rancorous debate that accompanied last year's last-minute approval of a similar measure.
That bill, however - like the three others that have passed the General Assembly since 1974 - was found to have major constitutional defects, and so was vetoed after the session by then Gov. Marvin Mandel.
Because most of the unconstitutional provisions in last year's capital punishment bill were part of an amendment added after the bill's introduction, the sponsors of this year's bill were extremely protective of its wording, and fought off a barrage of proposed amendments that they feared might have torpedoed the legislation.
The only amendment tacked on to Lee's original measure is one that forbids imposing the death penalty on defendants who aided in the commsssion of a murder but did not actually pull the trigger or wield the knife themselves.
The legislation does, however, allow the death penalty to be imposed on someone who hires another person to commit murder. Other kinds of murders punishable by death under the measure are: murder of a law enforcement official; murder committed by a prison inmate; murder of a kidnap victim; contract murder; mass murder; murder committed in the course of another crime, such as robbery by a prisoner serving a life sentences; and murder by any prison inmate.
The bill also provides for a two-tiered trial in a capital murder case, with the jury first deciding the question of guilt or innocence and then reconvening to decide whether a guility defendant should be sent to the gas chamber. Both decisions must be unanimous.
If the original trial jury was dismissed for any specific cause, a new jury would be empaneled to decide the capital pubishment question.
In addition, the law provides that the jury that is considering whether to impose a death sentence must consider possibly mitigating circumstances, such as the age of the defendant, the defendant's chances of rehabiliatation, or whether the defendant was provoked or was acting under duress of some sort.
Even after yesterday's overwhelming House vote, Del. Murphy, its leading opponent, was not downcast, "Because of the long review process, no one will ever really get capital punishment," he predicted. "No one will ever die."
Two weeks ago, Murphy, a coalition of fellow black delegates from Baltimore City and Prince George's County, and several liberal suburban legislators had spent several days trying to broaden the bill by proposing about 12 amendments. None of their amendments were approved, however.
"They're just determined that they're not going to listen to amendments," Murphy said at the time.
In the Senate earlier this month, opponents of the legislation were able to argue their point - that the death penalty historically has been applied disproportionately to poor and black defendants - for only a few hours before their filibuster attempt was cut off.
Acting Gov. Lee was at the national governor's conference and unavailable for comment yesterday, but he has said repeatedly during the session that he would sign this death penalty measure if it came to his desk relatively intact.
The lates execution in Maryland was carried out at the state penitentiary in Baltimore in 1961.
When Lee signs the bill, Maryland will become the 33rd state in the nation to reinstitute its death penalty law. A 1972 Supreme Court decision voided all death subsequent court rulings have held that the death penalty is consititutional under certain circumstances.