Maryland is on the fast track to abolishing its death penalty, after the state Senate passed a measure Wednesday that would make it the 18th state to outlaw capital punishment.
The Senate voted 27-20 in favor of the bill, sending it to the House and clearing what lawmakers have long considered the largest obstacle toward a repeal.
The House version of the bill is co-sponsored by nearly half of the chamber, making its passage almost certain, although supporters say they still expect a fight.
"I keep hearing that everything is on track for passage in the House, and it would take something extraordinary to derail it," said Delegate Sam Arora, Montgomery Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. "But you can't take anything for granted in Annapolis."
Maryland has not executed an inmate since 2005, and the last serious bid to end the death penalty was in 2009, when the state Senate rejected a repeal bill and instead opted for legislation that raised the burden of proof for capital cases.
This year's bill, proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, passed the Senate with support from 25 of 35 Democrats and two of 12 Republicans. It appears likely to be pushed through the House without any major changes.
Because the House version of the legislation is co-sponsored by 67 of the 141 members, only an additional four votes will be needed for its passage.
On the House Judiciary Committee, which will vet the bill before the full chamber, 11 of 23 members are sponsors.
Of the four votes that are still needed, at least two appear to have been secured.
Delegate Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher, Montgomery Democrat and Judiciary Committee member, announced last month that he would vote in favor of a full repeal.
Delegate Darren M. Swain, Prince George's Democrat appointed this session to replace ousted Delegate Tiffany T. Alston, was asked by leaders to confirm his support for a repeal before he was placed on the Judiciary Committee, a Democratic delegate said.
The Senate bill cleared its biggest hurdle Feb. 21 when it was passed by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which refused to budge on past repeal bills even as supporters said they had majority support in the full Senate and House.
The committee approved it by a 6-5 vote after Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, Baltimore County Democrat, reversed his opposition and voted for a repeal.
The panel removed a provision from the bill that would have dedicated $500,000 a year to services for victims of violent crime and their families, after lawmakers expressed concerns that the stipulation would have made the bill ineligible for referendum.
State law prohibits any bill that dedicates state funds from being petitioned to a statewide vote.
Opponents were unable to force any additional changes this week, unsuccessfully arguing that the death penalty should remain an option in the most serious cases, such as the murders of police officers or schoolchildren.
"I'm concerned with the signal that we're sending," said Sen. Joseph M. Getty, Carroll Republican. "We're lessening the options that our prosecutors have for dealing with the worst of the worst crime."
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