- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

ANNAPOLIS Maryland senators who support the death penalty scored a close victory for the second straight day yesterday as they rejected legislation to toughen the criteria for sentencing a murderer to death.
The bill, which backers argued would help ensure that the state never puts an innocent person to death, was defeated 25-21, with 11 Democrats joining the chamber's 14 Republicans. The vote came a day after the Senate turned back, by one vote, an effort to reinstate a death-penalty moratorium.
The bill would have required juries to use the same standard that is used to prove guilt or innocence that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt when evaluating sentencing criteria. A "preponderance of evidence" standard is currently used to determine whether mitigating factors outweigh aggravating factors.
Opponents of the sentencing measure argued that it would make the standards used to decide which cases warrant capital punishment so strict that it would in effect end the administration of the death penalty in Maryland. They also insisted that the 12 men on the state's death row could use it to file further appeals, delaying punishment for their heinous crimes.
"We're going to be pursuing these cases over and over and over again," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, Frederick County Republican.
Supporters of the measure responded that death-row inmates are going to appeal anyway. If the bill prompts more appeals, that is a small price to pay to ensure that the innocent are not inadvertently executed, supporters argued.
"I think if all 12 of them appeal it is not too much to make sure what we do is right," said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, Baltimore County Democrat.
Other opponents cited testimony on the bill from the assistant state's attorney of Baltimore County, where nine of the state's capital cases originated, who said defense attorneys would manipulate the legislation to empty death row altogether.
Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., Prince George's County Democrat, countered that the bill specified that the new sentencing standards would apply only to future cases.
"You might take it to court, sure, but you're going to lose," Mr. Giannetti said.
In a written opinion to senators, Kathryn M. Rowe, an assistant attorney general for the state, said an appeal based on the bill, if it passed, "should fail, [but] I cannot say that it is impossible that one would succeed."
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and sponsor of the bill, argued that courts could soon find the state's current sentencing standards unconstitutional.
Two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, Apprendi v. New Jersey and Ring v. Arizona, have set a high bar for juries considering evidence in the death-penalty phase of a trial, and affected laws in five states last year.
Maryland law requires juries to use a "preponderance of evidence" standard when weighing the aggravating factors of a case, such as rape or if two or more persons were murdered at the same time, against mitigating factors that might benefit the defendant. Mitigating circumstances could include whether the defendant is a juvenile or whether he or she acted under duress or provocation.
In successfully arguing for a stay of execution for death-row inmate Steven Oken, attorney Fred Warren Bennett said that the Supreme Court cases show that a jury must use the much tougher standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" and give closer scrutiny to factors that might discourage a death sentence. Oken now awaits a Court of Appeals decision on that appeal, which is expected to be heard in May.

A bill that would reduce tuition costs for some immigrants who attend state colleges in Maryland survived a test vote in the House yesterday.
Students who have graduated from Maryland high schools and who have applied to become U.S. citizens would be charged in-state tuition rates. That would mean a savings of more than $9,000 a year at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Delegate Herb McMillan, Anne Arundel County Republican, tried to amend the bill to deny the tuition break to anyone who is not a legal resident of Maryland. His amendment was rejected 87-41.
The bill is a top priority of a coalition of Maryland Hispanic groups organized to seek equal rights for immigrants.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee rewrote the slot machine bill proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., reducing the amount of money going to racetrack owners and setting aside more money for public schools.
The revised bill was approved Tuesday on an 11-2 vote. It would provide about $700 million a year for public schools when all 10,500 machines are in operation at three existing racetracks.
Track owners would get just under $600 million.
The committee also set aside $90 million for horse owners and breeders, and about $72 million to help local governments where the tracks are located.

The House voted Tuesday to approve a bill that would dramatically reduce penalties for Marylanders who use marijuana for medical reasons.
The bill had bipartisan support and passed 73-62. It would allow people charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana to present evidence that they have medical conditions that can be helped by smoking marijuana.
The maximum penalty for possessing marijuana for medicinal purposes would be a $100 fine. There would be no jail term.
The bill heads to the Senate. Last year, similar legislation also passed the House, but was killed in a Senate committee.

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