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Death penalty debated before committee

Death penalty debated before committee

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ANNAPOLIS — A former Maryland House Speaker and a man who served time on death row before being exonerated urged lawmakers Tuesday to repeal capital punishment in the state.

Opposing them were a county state’s attorney and law enforcement associations, who called the death penalty appropriate for the most heinous murders.

The two sides battled before the House Judiciary Committee over House Bill 1075, which would abolish Maryland’s death penalty.

The last attempt to repeal capital punishment in Maryland fell short in 2009. The legislative push that year did, however, lead to 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.

Former Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and ex-death row inmate Kirk N. Bloodsworth urged lawmakers to take the final step and abolish capital punishment.

“Of all the votes I cast in the [House in] 28 years, the one vote that I want back is my vote to legalize the death penalty” after the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, said Taylor, a Democrat who represented Allegany County. Taylor served in the House from 1975 to 2003, and as speaker from 1994 to 2003. “It brings no one back and it cures no wrongs.”

Bloodsworth, who served two years on death row after being convicted in 1984 for the rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton in Rosedale, urged the committee to “end the death penalty once and for all.”

Bloodsworth’s death sentence was changed on appeal to life in prison before his conviction was overturned in 1993, when it was determined his DNA did not match that found at the crime scene. He urged the repeal, noting how close he had come to being executed.

“If you don’t have [the death penalty], you can’t execute an innocent person,” he said.

But Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger told the committee to keep Maryland’s death penalty, calling it an appropriate punishment for “the worst of the worst.”

He mentioned the kidnapping and killing of 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell, who was taken from her Salisbury bedroom on Dec. 23, 2009. Her body was found two days later, on Christmas, in a wooded area.

Thomas J. Leggs Jr. is on trial in Cecil County Circuit Court for capital murder in the case.

“There are some who, because of their crimes, warrant the ultimate punishment,” Shellenberger told the committee. “If you pass House Bill 1075, Leggs does not face the punishment he deserves [if convicted] for killing Sarah. That should be reason enough to defeat this bill.”

The Maryland Sheriffs’ Association and the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association submitted a joint statement to the committee urging the lawmakers to keep the death penalty.

“It is important to note that law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day,” the groups stated. “While we recognize a police officer’s life is not more valuable than any other citizen, we contend criminals are less likely to kill or seriously injure a police officer during the commission of a crime because of the potential of getting the death penalty.”

The General Assembly’s chief sponsors of the repeal legislation are Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg and Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, both Baltimore Democrats.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, on which Gladden serves as vice chair, has not yet scheduled a hearing date for her repeal legislation, Senate Bill 837.

Maryland has been under a de facto death penalty moratorium since December 2006, when the 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.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration last month withdrew its proposed lethal-injection protocols from a General Assembly committee, saying further review was required because a drug used in the executions — sodium thiopental — is no longer available for purchase in the United States.

Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, did not state how long the review would take.

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.

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