After three amendments, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted, 6-5, Thursday night to advance a bill to repeal the death penalty, sending it to the full Senate for a vote.
One amendment took out language that required $500,000 to be allocated annually to a fund to provide services to victims of violent crime and their families.
The allocation language raised some concerns that the bill would not be eligible to appear as a referendum question because appropriation bills are not eligible for a popular vote.
The concerns were raised even though the Attorney General’s Office issued an advice letter last month stating it would be unlikely for the bill to be considered an appropriations measure because its main intent is the repeal.
Some accused Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) of trying to circumvent public opinion by ensuring that the bill could go to referendum.
O’Malley’s bill repeals Maryland’s death penalty and replaces it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
State analysts estimate the repeal will save the state about $800,000 annually because capital cases are more expensive to prosecute.
The governor sent a letter to the committee, stating he would redirect a portion of the savings to a victims’ fund.
“Given the questions raised, I understand that the provision may not remain in the legislation,” O’Malley wrote.
The swing vote in the Senate is likely to be committee member Robert A. Zirkin (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills. The measure hasn’t made it past the Senate in prior years.
Zirkin said at the bill’s hearing Feb. 14 he would be more comfortable voting for the bill if the appropriations provision was removed.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) — who is opposed to the repeal — said the bill would make it to the floor of the chamber, whether it has the votes for a favorable committee report, through a procedural move.
Opponents of the repeal have argued the death penalty should be available for the most horrific crimes, and state prosecutors should have the ultimate punishment in their toolbox to use as a bargaining chip in plea deals. Some fear that if life without the possibility of parole is the ultimate punishment, many will plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence with the possibility of parole.
Opponents on the committee, including Sen. Christopher B. Shank (R-Dist. 2) of Hagerstown and Sen. James Brochin (D-Dist. 42) of Towson, introduced amendments that would have changed the bill to keep the death penalty in cases where there is DNA evidence or in cases where multiple murders are committed and an amendment that would have made the repeal a constitutional amendment, requiring three-fifths of the votes in both chambers and sending it to referendum automatically. The amendments were defeated.
The House of Delegates is expected to vote for the repeal as they have in the past.
Another amendment that passed stated the governor could commute the sentence of a death row inmate to life without the possibility of parole, although committee chair Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase said the state Constitution gives the governor that power.
Five men are currently on death row in Maryland. O’Malley said he will decide whether to commute their sentences on a case-by-case basis.