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Death penalty: Battle for hearts and minds

ANNAPOLIS — The Senate on Friday began debate on legislation to repeal capital punishment in Maryland, with abolitionist legislators saying the death penalty does not deter heinous crimes and carries the risk that a wrongly convicted person could be executed.

Death penalty supporters countered that the ultimate punishment should be available for cold-blooded killers and slayings involving other violent crimes such as rape. Supporters cited the sexual assault and brutal slaying of 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell in Wicomico County at Christmastime in 2009 as a crime that deserved capital punishment.

Thomas J. Leggs Jr. later pleaded guilty to the girl’s murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole as part of the plea agreement.

“We look to the state to apply justice,” Senate Republican Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, said in support of preserving the death penalty. “How do we look the victims’ families in the eye” if we cannot sentence their loved ones’ brutal killers to death? he added.

But Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, the floor manager of the repeal bill, said as the father of two daughters, his “blood boils with vengeance and outrage” but justice depends on controlling such emotions.

“We’ve got to use not just our hearts, but our minds,” said Raskin, D-Montgomery. “The death penalty doesn’t help” prevent killings such as Sarah Foxwell’s, which occurred despite the availability of capital punishment, he added.

The bill got a boost on Friday when the Senate defeated an amendment that would allow execution in certain cases.

Citing Foxwell’s murder, Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Eastern Shore, introduced an amendment that would permit the death sentence in cases where a person has been found guilty of heinous crime. It was voted down, 27-19.

The repeal measure, introduced at Gov. Martin O’Malley’s request, would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. If the bill is enacted, death-penalty supporters have vowed to bring the issue to referendum in 2014.

Maryland is one of 33 states that have capital punishment.

The Senate will continue debate Monday night on the measure, Senate Bill 276. The legislation is also pending before the House Judiciary Committee, as House Bill 295.

Measures to abolish Maryland’s death penalty have been introduced in each of the last nine General Assembly sessions. The closest the effort came to passage was in 2009, when lawmakers 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.

Maryland has been under a de facto death penalty moratorium since December 2006, when the Court of Appeals — the state’s top court — 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 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 article.