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Maryland Death Penalty Repeal: State Senate Votes To Abolish Executions

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The Maryland Senate voted Wednesday to make Maryland the 18th state to abolish the death penalty, putting Gov. Martin O'Malley one step closer to a significant legislative victory.

The 27-20 vote sent the bill to the House of Delegates, where repeal supporters believe they have enough backing to send the legislation to the governor.

Two Republicans -- Sens. Edward R. Reilly of Anne Arundel County and Allan H. Kittleman of Howard County -- joined 25 Democrats in supporting repeal. Ten Democrats and 10 Republicans opposed the legislation.

The Senate has been viewed by repeal proponents as a tougher challenge than the House. In 2009, the last year O'Malley pushed to end capital punishment, the effort ended in a compromise that narrowed the circumstances under which the death penalty could be sought.

This year, the NAACP decided to make repeal in Maryland a priority and urged O'Malley to include it in his legislative agenda. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, despite his personal support for capital punishment, promised to allow an up-or-down vote in his chamber if O'Malley could show he had the votes to pass the bill.

A breakthrough for death penalty opponents came when Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, reversed his previous opposition to repeal and provided the sixth vote needed to approve the bill in the Judicial Proceedings Committee and send it to the Senate floor. There, opponents of the legislation tried repeatedly but failed to win approval of amendments creating various exceptions to full repeal.

Maryland currently has five men on death row for murders committed as far back as 1983. The bill does not directly affect them, but it expresses the Senate's view that if the governor commutes their sentences, it should be to life without parole. Raskin said that under the state Constitution, the legislature could not put any statutory limit on the governor's commutation and pardon powers.

The last time Maryland executed a convicted murderer was in 2005, when Wesley Baker, 47, received a lethal injection for the 1991 slaying of 49-year-old Jane Tyson in the parking lot of Westview Mall.

Like four of the five men on Maryland's death row, Baker was an African-American man whose victim was white. A 2003 study by University of Maryland researcher Raymond Paternoster found that killers of white victims were two to three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks. He also found wide discrepancies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, with killers who committed their crimes in Baltimore County far more likely to receive the death penalty than those in Baltimore city.

Disparity in sentencing was one of the chief arguments raised by supporters of repeal, along with the cost of administering the system and the possibility of error. As if to underscore that last point, Kirk Bloodsworth -- exonerated by DNA testing after being sentenced to death in a Baltimore County for the murder of a young girl -- was in the Senate gallery Wednesday to witness the vote.

Supporters of capital punishment countered that since 2009, Maryland has had one of the most restrictive laws in the country in terms of the evidence required for the state to seek the death penalty. Under the law, prosecutors are able to seek the death penalty only when they have DNA or biological evidence, a videotape of the crime or a video-recorded confession by the killer.

Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin, an Upper Shore Republican, said a case such as Bloodsworth's couldn't happen today. Pipkin said he was tired of hearing repeal supporters' constant repetition of his name. Sen. Jamie Raskin, the floor leader for the pro-repeal forces, said that while some senators may be suffering from "Kirk Bloodsworth fatigue," he was not.

Critics of the governor's bill argued that execution should remain an option for punishing the "worst of the worst," including inmates who commit murder in prison and killers who murder in the course of a rape.

"We are talking about crimes against humanity," said Sen. Christoper Shank, a Washington County Republican.

Shari Silberstein, executive director of the anti-execution group Equal Justice USA, said final enactment of repeal would make Maryland the sixth state in the past six years to abolish capital punishment. She said her hope is that Maryland's likely action increases the momentum behind repeal efforts nationwide.

"There are several states teed up. Delaware and Colorado are looking possible this year or next," she said.

Silberstein said what's happening in Maryland and the role of O'Malley are symbolic of a broader cultural shift in attitudes toward the death penalty. She said both executions and death sentences have been on the decline nationally and that opposition to capital punishment is no longer politically dangerous.

"Five or 10 years ago, a governor who wanted to be president would not have made the death penalty such a banner issue," she said.

Michael.dresser@baltsun.com ___

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