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BY COLUMNISTS

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DOCUMENTS


The Tentacle


March 30, 2009

General Assembly Journal 2009 Volume 9

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

One of the most contentious issues to storm Annapolis this legislative session hit the floor of the House of Delegates March 25. This matter has already been fully vetted in the Senate, not because the Senate is more important (it isn’t), but because passage of this bill was seemingly less likely than in the House.

 

Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (D., Calvert/PG) is a vocal death penalty supporter. He shares a lot with the governor, but one area where there is a major policy rift is on the question of the death penalty.

 

When the session started in January, there were essentially two perspectives. First, Gov. Martin O’Malley, and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, advocated a full repeal of Maryland’s death penalty statute. The Civilleti Commission, chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civilleti, spent the summer holding public hearings on the question.

 

That commission concluded several things:

 

1.)     The death penalty could potentially be given to an innocent person: and

2.)     There are significant racial disparities in the sentencing of those convicted of a death penalty-eligible crime: and

3.)      The death penalty should be eliminated and replaced in all cases with a life without parole sentence.

 

Using the output from the commission to rationalize a change in law seemed like an unnecessary redundancy. Governor O’Malley has always opposed the death penalty, and given his personal bias, he populated the commission in such a way to assure the desired result.

 

The Senate took up the bill first, mostly because the governor knew he had enough votes in the House to pass his desired full repeal. Setting aside the 36 Republicans and one unaffiliated delegate, and factoring in the handful of conservative Democrats who support the death penalty, there are easily 71 votes, more likely 90, to pass a full death penalty repeal.

 

Senator Miller’s opposition to the bill means that a full repeal is not just unlikely, it’s impossible.

 

So, the bill now contains a set of conditions before a death sentence can be handed down.

 

Conditions:

-          DNA evidence at the scene of the crime; and

-          Videotaped evidence of the commission of the crime; and

-          A videotaped confession by the perpetrator.

 

Amendment #1 – Maintain the death penalty for contract murder.

 

Michael Smigiel (R., Cecil) argued that under the “compromise,” a person who hires a killer wouldn’t leave DNA evidence, couldn’t be videotaped at the scene, and is very unlikely to give a videotaped confession.

 

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of contract killings that occur across our country. All of these killings would be exempt from the death penalty in Maryland.

 

Del. Craig Rice (D., Montgomery) whose family suffered from a contract killing, is supporting the bill. He told the story of how a murder-for-hire scheme devastated his own family, but explained that killing their killer wouldn’t bring them back.

 

In spite of the compelling arguments, the amendment failed along traditional ideological lines.

 

Amendment #2 – Without regard to the conditions cited above, the death penalty could be handed down for the murder of a uniformed law enforcement/correction professional in the line of duty.

 

There were some very powerful arguments about the dangers faced by correctional professionals at work in our prison system every day. Del. Andrew Serafini (R., Washington) gave a riveting floor speech about the murder of Jeffrey Wroten, a corrections officer who was killed by a prisoner he was taking to the hospital. The prisoner killed him with his own service firearm, but only after making Officer Wroten beg for his life while on his knees.

 

The amendment was defeated, with 75 votes cast in opposition. For the Maryland House of Delegates, where 71 votes is the required constitutional majority, that’s a squeaker.

 

There were a total of 13 amendments offered, everything from adding fingerprints as acceptable evidence, to a variety of amendments designed to add death sentences to the killing of law enforcement professionals in a variety of circumstances.

 

Arguments offered by committee leadership suggest that it is inappropriate to amend the bill because the posture of the bill will be different from the Senate version. Senate President Miller, a strong death penalty supporter, has stated publicly that his chamber will resist any changes to the bill they passed. Governor O’Malley has also indicated that – while he would have preferred a full repeal – he is willing to accept this compromise.

 

As expected, and as directed through the Democratic Party leadership, all amendments to the bill during the floor debate were resisted. In an odd twist of irony, the morning that the House took up the final bill on 3rd reading, The Baltimore Sun featured a story about the state Senate considering a new bill to add fingerprint evidence to the list of conditions that warrant a death sentence.

 

The House majority resisted all attempts to amend the existing bill, including a fingerprint as acceptable evidence condition. The floor leader on the bill argued that the bill was as good as it could be, and that any amendments were merely a political ploy to change the language of the bill.

 

It seems as though the Senate now admits that the bill was flawed, at least as far as fingerprints go. The only political ploy was the childish effort by an out-of-control majority to squelch any opposition, even those ideas that have merit.

 

So, the bill passed the House and Senate. Under our constitutional process, the bill will now go to the governor for his signature. For all intents and purposes, there will be no death penalty in Maryland.

 

The saddest aspect of this vote isn’t that my perspective did not prevail. The saddest aspect of this debate is the idea that because the governor, or another constitutional officer, doesn’t want one chamber to pass any amendments to a controversial bill, an independent body of the state legislature would abdicate its responsibility to debate and amend a bill before passage.

 

This is one of the saddest days of my six years as an elected official.

 

 



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