A House of Delegates committee approved three bills today that would stiffen Maryland's sentencing laws for persons convicted of murder. The action is expected to send the bills sailing through the General Assembly.
The House Judiciary Committee action was applauded by members of the Stephanie Roper Committee, who had pressed for reform after Stephanie Roper, a 22-year-old Frostburg College senior from rural Prince George's County, was murdered last April.
The vote today came after Committee Chairman Joseph E. Owens, a Montgomery County Democrat who suggested earlier this year that the bills would have trouble getting out of his committee, forged a compromise from two dozen related bills.
The House and Senate are expected to pass the three bills. Gov. Harry Hughes so far has indicated only that he opposes dramatic changes in sentencing laws; the bills approved today do not appear to fall into that category.
One bill would increase from 15 to 25 years the minimum time to be served in a life sentence handed down in a case where the death penalty is sought. That would raise actual minimum time to be served, given time off for good behavior, from 11 years and 8 months to 19 1/2 years.
The two men convicted of murdering Roper received the minimum sentences making them eligible for parole in 11 years, 8 months. Those sentences spurred formation of the Roper committee.
The House committee also approved a bill removing voluntary alcoholic intoxication as a mandatory mitigating circumstance in a murder. Under the bill, a jury may consider intoxication as a mitigating circumstance but would not be required to.
The committee approved a third bill requiring that, before sentencing, both judge and jury see a statement from a victim's relatives and others on the impact of the crime. The Roper jury saw no such statement.
"Mrs. Roper Stephanie's mother, Roberta and the committee members are going to be very happy with this," said Vic Pietkewicz, the Roper committee chairman, who sat in the hallway throughout yesterday's voting session. "This was our rookie year, we only had six months to prepare. This will be enough to keep us rolling. We were told we wouldn't get anything this year and we got these bills. We're delighted."
Committee members said approval of the three bills was designed to show Roper supporters the legislature was responsive to their concerns but would not go overboard.
"What we did today was strictly publicity," said one committee member. "These changes . . . get some heat off of us."
Owens, who has a reputation for killing bills, made it plain from the beginning that radical changes would not get through his committee. The bills killed today included broadening the circumstances under which the death penalty could be imposed, adding the option of life sentences without parole in murder trials and giving family members the right to testify at a sentencing.
One rejected bill established a fourth-degree sex offense as an aggravating circumstance to be considered in a death-penalty case. "A fourth-degree sex offense means you pat someone on the cheek," Owens said disparagingly.
It was apparent from the outset that the committee was in no mood to give life to many bills. At one point, Del. Joseph Vallario (D-Prince George's), the package's main defender, tried to add an amendment to one.
"You want to add an amendment before we kill it?" asked Del. Jerry H. Hyatt (D-Montgomery). Vallario's amendment was not seconded.
Vallario, who represents the district where the Ropers live, brought charts showing states with laws similar to those being proposed.
Owens said late yesterday, "I think intoxication as a mitigating circumstance was an important change. It had reached the point where, because it was mandatory that the jury consider intoxication, it had almost become justification, not mitigation. Now, if a jury wants to consider it, fine. But they don't have to."
As for the increase in minimum time for a life, Owens said, "Actually, very few people get out in less than 20 years under the current law. But it's a matter of confidence. People think if something's possible, it will happen. This should reassure them."
Reassured and satisfied, Pietkewicz and legislative liaison Kurt Wolfgang said the Roper committee would be back next year.
"We didn't think we would get anything passed," Wolfgang said. "We said if we got anything, we'd party over it. I can assure you we'll do that."