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Senate panel passes death penalty repeal

ANNAPOLIS — By the slimmest of margins, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee approved legislation Thursday night to abolish capital punishment in Maryland.

The 6-5 vote was secured when Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, who in past years has been a death penalty supporter, reversed course and voted to repeal the ultimate punishment.

“It’s time for our state to not be involved in the apparatus of executions,” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said before the committee’s vote. The death penalty is “a system that clearly doesn’t work,” he added.

Zirkin said death sentences are handed down in an “arbitrary” fashion that is often dependent on what city or county the murder was committed, the race of the defendant and victim, and the predilection of “who got elected state’s attorney.”

The full Senate is expected to vote as early as next week on the bill, which was introduced at the behest of Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Supporters say the repeal measure has enough votes to pass both the Senate and House of Delegates and be signed into law by O’Malley.

Before approving the bill, the committee stripped a provision that would have earmarked $500,000 annually in state funds to assist survivors of homicide victims.

Committee members who support capital punishment wanted the victim-assistance funding provision excised from the bill and introduced as separate legislation to enable Maryland voters to decide the death penalty’s fate in a 2014 referendum if the repeal effort succeeds.

The Maryland Constitution prohibits appropriation measures from being challenged in a referendum.

Besides Zirkin, committee members who voted for repeal were senators Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, the panel’s chair; Lisa A. Gladden, D-Baltimore City; Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery; Jennie Forehand, D-Montgomery; and C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s.

Opposing the repeal were Sens. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County; Joseph M. Getty, R-Carroll and Baltimore counties; Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford and Cecil; Norman R. Stone Jr., D- Baltimore County; and Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.