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Md. House OKs death penalty restrictions

bill goes to O'Malley

March 26, 2009

Serafini offers amendment to death penalty bill

ANNAPOLIS (AP) -- Maryland lawmakers on Thursday approved limits to how the death penalty can be used, with supporters saying it will help protect innocent people from execution, but opponents calling the restrictions a practical end to capital punishment in Maryland.

The measure, which was approved by the House of Delegates 87-52, restricts the death penalty to murder cases with biological evidence such as DNA, videotaped evidence of a murder or a videotaped confession.

Supporters said the legislation is needed to help put to rest concerns about the potential for an innocent person being wrongly sent to death row.

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"No victim's family wants to hear that an innocent person has been put to death as a result of the death penalty," said Del. Craig Rice, a Democrat who voted for the bill even though he is a death penalty supporter whose aunt was murdered 16 years ago.

The legislation already has been approved by a divided Senate, which amended the bill to remove a full repeal that was supported by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

O'Malley, a Roman Catholic Democrat who pushed hard for repeal, said he will sign the measure, which he describes as a step forward in death penalty reforms.

"While it is not the full repeal that we had hoped for, I want to thank the Maryland House of Delegates for voting to strengthen Maryland's death penalty law and making it one of the strictest death penalty laws in the nation," O'Malley said in a statement.

Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said the legislation will give Maryland "the highest standard of evidence required to seek death of any state," but she said it does not eliminate problems with the death penalty.

"The legislation passed today does not address racial and judicial disparities in how the death penalty is applied, the excessive cost required to bring death penalty cases and the heavy toll capital punishment cases take on the families of murder victims," Henderson said in a statement.

Opponents said the measure will make it very difficult for prosecutors to bring capital cases because of the far-reaching legal ramifications of the bill.

"It doesn't provide flexibility, and I believe it will be almost virtually impossible to bring a death penalty case with these new restrictions," said Del. William Frank, R-Baltimore County, who was a member of a state commission that studied the death penalty.

Del. Richard Impallaria, R-Baltimore County, was more blunt.

"The death penalty is gone," he said.

Attorney General Douglas Gansler, a Democrat and death penalty supporter, has expressed misgivings about the bill. He has said the Senate amendments were "hastily crafted and would effectively nullify the death penalty in Maryland."

The House rejected all proposed amendments to the bill, mostly out of concern amendments could jeopardize progress in death penalty reforms. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat and death penalty supporter, indicated he would not be willing to accept many changes to the compromise measure that his heavily divided chamber reached, citing time constraints before the General Assembly adjourns next month. However, Miller has said he would support a separate bill to enable prosecutors to bring a capital case with fingerprint evidence.

Lawmakers who have been critical of the measure contend it lacks substantial definition for the evidence that will be needed to bring a capital case. Other critics wanted to amend the bill to make photographic or audiotaped evidence of a murder strong enough to seek the death penalty.

The House vote caps a long-running debate over capital punishment in Maryland, which has been in limbo since Maryland's highest court ruled in late 2006 the state's lethal injection protocols weren't properly approved by a legislative committee. Executions can't resume until a new protocol is created for the committee to approve. O'Malley has not issued the protocols pending the repeal effort, but has said he will move forward with them now that the issue has been settled.

Maryland has five men on death row. Five inmates have been executed since Maryland reinstated the death penalty in 1978. Wesley Baker, the last person put to death, was executed in December 2005. The bill would not have any retroactive effects.

How they voted



The following is how local members of the Maryland House of Delegates voted Thursday on the death penalty bill.

o Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington -- No

o Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany -- No

o Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington -- No

o Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington -- No

o Del. Richard B. Weldon Jr., unaffiliated-Frederick/Washington -- No

On the Net:

Read Senate Bill 279: http://mlis.state.md.us/2009rs/billfile/SB0279.htm

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