After 10 years of proposals and three days of debate, the Maryland Senate voted Wednesday 27-20 in favor of a bill to repeal the state’s death penalty.
Fifteen amendments were proposed; 14 of them were rejected, one was withdrawn. Most of the amendments would have allowed capital punishment in narrow cases, such as mass murders or murders on school grounds.
The repeal’s passage makes almost certain the success of a decade-long campaign to end the death penalty in Maryland. Supporters of the effort say that the death penalty is applied in a racially biased way, is too expensive, and takes a toll on victims’ families during years of appeals and motions from the accused.
State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin led the debate.
“This was an extraordinarily serious and rigorous debate,” said Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park. “We considered every possible facet of the death penalty.”
The bill, championed this year by Gov. Martin O’Malley, now goes to the House, where it is expected to pass in both the committee and the whole chamber, as it has in the past.
Many are predicting that the repeal will be petitioned to referendum.
Raskin said he thinks voters will approve the repeal, should it land on the ballot.
“I’m relieved,” said Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase, whose committee has heard proposals to repeal capital punishment for the past decade. “It’s been a very long process. ... I’m convinced that we’re taking the right step.”
Opponents to the bill criticized the governor’s endorsement of the repeal, saying that O’Malley (D) could have commuted the sentences of the men on death row at any time.
“He’s asking us to change the law, but he could change the sentences at any time,” said Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton.
Other arguments against the repeal are that Maryland’s requirements to pursue a death sentence, which were changed in 2009, are among the most stringent, requiring DNA or video evidence or a videotaped confession, and that prosecutors need the ultimate punishment available as a bargaining chip during plea deals.
Maryland has not executed a death row prisoner since before 2006, the year the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the procedures for executions were unconstitutional, and that new protocols would need to be adopted.
Five men are on death row. O’Malley has said he would determine what to do about their sentences individually following the debate on the bill.