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Zirkin made death penalty repeal debate memorable

The flurry of legislative activity that led to the General Assembly’s vote this year to repeal the death penalty in Maryland included the most memorable quote of the 2013 session — if only because of the speaker.

For the prior four years, Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin was widely regarded as one of the two legislators who saved capital punishment in Maryland. With the Senate poised to vote for abolition in 2009, Zirkin – with Sen. James Brochin – crafted legislation that preserved the death penalty but limited its application only when DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or a videotape of the crime conclusively linked the defendant to the capital murder.

But this past legislative session, Zirkin said the risk of executing an innocent person remains too great to permit the death penalty to remain on the books. His changed position was decisive as the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted by the slimmest of majorities to allow the repeal measure to reach the floor.

During floor debate, Zirkin cited the flaws in the legislation he once championed.

“DNA is not foolproof and a videotaped confession is as good as a confession that is videotaped,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County.

The killers “don’t deserve to live [but] we could get the wrong person,” he added.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, who had made repeal of the death penalty her top priority in each of the past 10 sessions, praised Zirkin’s change of vote.

“I’m not just pleased but proud that [he] came to the realization that repeal was the only answer in the state of Maryland,” said Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, who managed the repeal bill on the Senate floor, also praised Zirkin’s comments.

“Senator Zirkin’s role was important,” said Raskin, D-Montgomery. “It reinforced the point I was trying to make that the age of DNA is not the age of 100 percent accuracy.”

Zirkin, in recalling the floor debate, said Thursday that it was “not some storybook moment.”

The Baltimore County Democrat said he has no moral issue with putting to death a cold-blooded killer.

“I might kill him myself,” Zirkin added.

But the senator said he has “always been concerned about killing an innocent person.”

Brochin, D-Baltimore County, said on the floor that he continues to believe that having a capital punishment statute on the books is a useful tool for prosecutors.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, who opposes the death penalty, is expected to sign the repeal legislation into law within the next few weeks.

One comment

  1. Thanks for an important story of a critical moment in Maryland’s history. At least now an innocent man or woman will not die in prison if found to be innocent.

    The problem is that nobody considers that murderers or other violent criminals might change and become different people after serving 20,30 or 40 years.

    One lifer told me, “If you are in here for ten years, you are either insane or a changed man.” He and five others have formed a think tank called the Extra Legalese Group that has developed a Peace Initiative to slow gang violence inside and outside in the community.

    The Daily Record gave them an Innovator of the Year Award. A documentary producer wants to create a film. These men have changed.