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Md. Republicans may not try referendum to save death penalty

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2013

ANNAPOLIS | Maryland Republicans might concede the fight over the state's death penalty, saying that they are unlikely to mount a referendum effort as the House prepares to grant final passage to a repeal.

The House could vote as soon as Thursday on a Senate-approved repeal bill after debating the legislation Wednesday night. Democrats appear to have more than the 71 votes needed to pass the legislation, which would make Maryland the 18th state to ban capital punishment.

In recent years, outnumbered Republicans in Maryland have used online petitions to send several controversial Democratic proposals to referendum, but the lawmaker who helped lead those efforts says he doesn't see it happening for the death penalty.

Delegate Neil C. Parrott said he hasn't completely ruled out leading a petition drive, but that a campaign would face long odds and might not do much to affect policy in a state where recent laws have already made it extremely difficult for prosecutors to pursue executions.

"It's excruciatingly difficult to get anything on the ballot," said Mr. Parrott, Washington Republican. "It's so much work that unless [supporters] really want to do that, we're not going to do it."

House Democrats appear to have a clear majority of votes in favor of a full death penalty repeal, and they spent much of Wednesday evening swatting down amendments proposed by Republicans that would have kept execution as an option in extreme cases such as the murder of a police officer or schoolchildren.

Delegate Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg has spent seven years fighting for bills to repeal the death penalty, and he said he expects this year's legislation -- which was sponsored by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and a near-majority of lawmakers -- to pass without any notable changes.

"We have enough votes," said Mr. Rosenberg, Baltimore Democrat. "It's time we moved on to deal with other criminal justice issues that have far greater effect on people's daily lives."

Many observers have said the death penalty is tailor-made for a GOP-led referendum effort, much like the 2011 petition drive that forced a statewide vote on the Dream Act — which allowed in-state tuition for some college-aged illegal immigrants — and the drives last year that forced referendums on same-sex marriage and the state's redrawn congressional map, which was heavily favored Democrats.

The petitioners eventually lost, as all three measures were upheld by voters on Election Day.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George's Democrat, has said he expects petitioners to gather the 55,736 voter signatures necessary to put the bill to a vote, but Republicans have downplayed the possibility -- in part suggesting that publicizing a referendum effort could give undecided lawmakers incentive to approve the measure under the guise of putting a final decision before voters.

The GOP reluctance is somewhat surprising considering that polls have consistently shown that Marylanders favor keeping the death penalty, although their support has decreased in recent years.

A poll released Wednesday by Goucher College shows that 51 percent of Maryland voters are opposed to ending the death penalty while just 43 percent support a repeal.

A poll this January by Gonzales Research Group found that 49 percent of state voters favor the death penalty while just 44 percent oppose it. However, death penalty opponents have closed the gap since January 2011 when voters favored capital punishment by a 56-36 margin.

Mr. Parrott said the problem with a referendum is that while petitioners have had recent success forcing bills onto the ballot, they have been heavily outgunned in campaigning on those issues.

Petitioners were severely outspent on same-sex marriage and the Dream Act last year as prominent Democrats and activist groups mounting multi-million-dollar campaigns, while their effort to overturn the state's new congressional map never caught on with voters.

"Last time we were hoping other people would step in and run the campaign," he said. "It happened for marriage but it didn't happen for the other two questions."

Mr. Parrott also said that even a successful effort to keep the death penalty might not have much effect, as the assembly passed a bill in 2009 to raises the burden of proof in capital cases to a level that many experts have called an effective ban on executions.

The law only allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty in cases where there is biological or DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or conclusive video evidence. Maryland has not executed an inmate since 2005.

Mr. Parrott said Republicans are more likely to pick their spots in the future and select battles that they think they can win. GOP lawmakers have said they plan to mount a referendum effort on Mr. O'Malley's gun-control bill, if it passes.

Any issues petitioned to the ballot this year would be decided in a 2014 referendum on the same day that all statewide offices will be up for election.

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