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Death penalty repeal clears hurdle in Senate

ANNAPOLIS — The Senate could vote as early as Wednesday on legislation to repeal the death penalty in Maryland.

Sens. Thomas M. ‘Mac’ Middleton and Jamin B. ‘Jamie’ Raskin debate the death penalty bill last Friday on the floor of the Senate.

On Tuesday, the Senate by voice vote gave preliminary approval to the legislation backed by Gov. Martin O’Malley. The Senate is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday to debate final passage.

The preliminary vote on Senate Bill 276 came after death penalty opponents defeated amendments Monday night and Tuesday morning that would have allowed capital punishment to be imposed on those who kill teachers or students at school, those who murder while serving life terms in prison and those who hire others to kill.

The amendment to permit the death penalty for campus killers came closest to passage, failing on a vote of 24 to 21 despite a strong plea Tuesday from Sen. Joseph M. Getty, its sponsor.

Getty said his amendment, like pending gun control legislation backed by O’Malley, was spurred by the Dec. 14 slayings of 20 children and six adult educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

But Getty said the gun bill — which the Senate approved last week and is pending in the House of Delegates — will do little to protect students and teachers.

People who would take such innocent lives will not concern themselves with the proposed licensing requirements of handgun purchasers or the ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, said Getty, R-Baltimore and Carroll counties.

The death penalty, however, might discourage such acts of violence or, if not, enable surviving family members to have justice, he said.

“It was a crime against humanity,” Getty said of the Newtown attack, which ended when the shooter, Adam Lanza, shot himself to death. “I would like to leave this [legislative] session … feeling that we have left our teachers and students safer.”

Supporters of repeal neither responded to Getty’s comments nor engaged in debate on any of the other amendments offered Tuesday.

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, the Senate floor manager of the repeal effort, said the silence from his side resulted not from a lack of passion but from the realization that the amendments were designed primarily to preserve the death penalty.

“I was more eloquent with my silence than I was with my words,” said Raskin, D-Montgomery.

In support of his amendment, Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, said prisoners serving life sentences could kill prison guards and fellow inmates with impunity in the absence of the death penalty.

“We as a state are going to do nothing” to punish these killers if capital punishment is repealed, Pipkin said. “We as a society are going to condone the killing of innocent people.”

Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, introduced the amendment to permit capital punishment for those who hire others to kill, saying it would discourage such contract killings.

Both amendments failed on votes of 25 to 19.

During debate on the measure Monday night, the Senate rejected eight amendments that would have kept capital punishment as an option in some situations authorized under current law, such as the killing of a police officer, murders committed as part of a kidnapping, mass slayings and the carrying out of a contract killing.

Raskin, in opposing the amendments Monday, said the death penalty is “not stopping these murders.”

But Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Carroll and Frederick, said capital punishment should remain in Maryland.

“There are truly monsters amongst us,” Brinkley said Monday night. “It is the state’s responsibility to make sure those individuals don’t again walk among us.”

The repeal legislation is also pending in the House of Delegates 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 state’s top court — 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.

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.

Daily Record reporter Alexander Pyles contributed to this article.