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Death penalty opponents argue for repeal

ANNAPOLIS — The recent life sentences for three “death eligible” defendants convicted of gruesome murders indicate that Marylanders no longer desire to keep the death penalty, veteran Public Defender Katy C. O’Donnell said Wednesday in support of legislation to repeal capital punishment in the state.

But Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said execution should remain available for the most heinous crimes and as a deterrent to convicted murders facing life sentences from killing behind bars.

O’Donnell and Shellenberger testified before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Senate Bill 872, the latest legislative effort to abolish Maryland’s death penalty.

Similar efforts have been introduced in four of the last five General Assembly sessions, reaching the floor of both the Senate and House of Delegates only once, in 2009.

Though that measure failed, the legislative push that year led 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.

O’Donnell, who defends capital cases, told the Senate committee that even under these restrictive evidentiary standards, Thomas Leggs Jr., Walter Bishop and Lee Stephens remained eligible for the death penalty. Leggs kidnapped and killed an 11-year old girl, Bishop committed a contract killing, and Stephens, an inmate already serving time in prison, was convicted of slaying a correctional officer.

Nevertheless, judges and juries in these cases said life in prison was the proper penalty, which she said sends “a clear message to this committee that it is time for repeal” of the death penalty.

Kirk Bloodsworth, who served two years on Maryland’s death row before being exonerated, also testified in favor of repeal. He said the evidentiary limits imposed in 2009 to protect against an innocent man being executed did not go far enough.

“You call it protections; I call it tinkering,” Bloodsworth said of the 2009 law.

“There is no such thing as a foolproof death penalty,” added Bloodsworth, who was convicted in 1984 for the rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton in Rosedale. “Human beings will make mistakes, overreach and even lie.”

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.

NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, another supporter of repeal, told the committee that the death penalty is arbitrarily handed down depending on the race of the defendant, if black, and the victim, if white, and on the county in which the crime occurred.

“This is a punishment in our society that is broken,” Jealous said. He added that the death penalty is also senseless because it involves “killing the killers that we already have in cages.”

But Shellenberger told the committee to keep Maryland’s death penalty, calling it an appropriate punishment for killers such as Lee E. Stephens, who was convicted in Anne Arundel Circuit Court last month of first-degree murder in the 2006 stabbing of Cpl. David McGuinn at the now-closed Maryland House of Correction.

The jury had found Stephens eligible for the death penalty under the 2009 law, but recommended a sentence of life without parole. Shellenberger said that without the continued existence of the death penalty, Stephens would essentially be free to kill any prison guard or nurse with impunity as he is already serving life without parole.

“How many people is [Stephens] going to come in contact with” while in prison, Shellenberger said.

In the other cases cited by O’Donnell, Leggs pleaded guilty last March in Cecil County Circuit Court to kidnapping and killing 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell of Salisbury in December 2009, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole; and Bishop was found guilty by a Baltimore County Circuit Court jury and sentenced to life with parole last fall of killing William Porter at a Towson gas station, allegedly after being hired by the victim’s wife, Karla Porter.

Passage unlikely

SB 872 is sponsored by Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, D-Baltimore City. An identical bill in the House, HB 949, is sponsored by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, also a Baltimore Democrat.

Following Wednesday’s hearing, Gladden told The Associated Press she expects the measure to die in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and that she probably will not attempt to circumvent the committee process by petitioning the bill to the Senate floor.

Petitioning the measure, which would require the signatures of 15 of her colleagues, would annoy Senate leadership, she said.

“If I had it, I would do it today, but I don’t have the votes and I know I don’t,” Gladden told the AP. “I think it’s an insult to the institution and the body. I think the body’s been through a lot of hard stuff with the same-sex marriage and this whole tax stuff we’re going to do next week. It’s unfair to ask my colleagues, my friends, my family to do that.”

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 in February 2011 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.

The administration has not resubmitted proposed protocols to the General Assembly.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.