ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Senate on Wednesday passed legislation to repeal the state’s death penalty.
Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, a death penalty opponent who managed the repeal bill on the Senate floor, said he understands the desire of supporters to retain capital punishment for the most heinous and remorseless killers. But he said the possibility of executing an innocent person remains too great.
“We have a blood-curdling cry for vengeance” when these killings occur, said Raskin, D-Montgomery. “Vengeance can be the beginning of the discussion but it can’t be the end of the discussion.”
However, Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, who led the opposition to repeal, called it impossible to execute an innocent person in Maryland due to the state’s prohibition on executing someone without DNA evidence, a videotape conclusively linking that person to the killing or a videotaped confession.
Pipkin said executions bring closure to a murder victim’s loved ones, as they will not have to be notified — and reminded of the slaying — whenever the killer files post-conviction motions.
“That would be extremely cruel and unusual punishment to the victims’ families,” Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, said the filings.
Measures to abolish Maryland’s death penalty have been introduced in each of the last nine General Assembly sessions.
The closest the effort had come to passage was in 2009, when legislators ultimately passed a law limiting the death penalty’s application to cases when the murderer’s conviction is based on DNA evidence; a videotaped, voluntary confession; or a video recording that conclusively links the defendant to the murder.
But on Wednesday, a chief sponsor of that 2009 law, Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, told his colleagues that the strict evidentiary standards he championed would not prevent the execution of an innocent man and that they should now vote to repeal the death penalty.
“DNA is not foolproof and a videotaped confession is as good as a confession that is videotaped,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. The killers “don’t deserve to live [but] we could get the wrong person,” he added.
Sen. James Brochin, who co-sponsored the 2009 law, said he continues to believe that having a capital punishment statute on the books is a useful tool for prosecutors.
The prospect of a death sentence encourages killers to plea bargain for life in prison without the possibility of parole, said Brochin, D-Baltimore County.
Without capital punishment, the plea would be to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years, he said.
Maryland has been under a de facto death penalty moratorium since December 2006, when the state Court of Appeals invalidated Maryland’s execution protocols because they had not been adopted in compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act.
The moratorium will stand unless the governor adopts new protocols following the stringent APA requirements, or the legislature amends the APA to exempt execution protocols.
Five men are currently on Maryland’s death row. The last person to be executed by the state was Wesley E. Baker in December 2005.
Maryland is one of 33 states that have capital punishment.
Here’s how members of the Maryland Senate voted Wednesday on a measure to repeal the death penalty. The vote was 27-20. Twenty-four votes were needed for passage.
Voting “yes” were 25 Democrats and two Republicans.
Voting “no” were 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans.