- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 21, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | A key House committee Friday approved a compromise bill that greatly tightens death penalty standards, paving the way for the bill’s likely passage by the full House of Delegates next week.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 14-7 to approve the bill, which restricts the death penalty to cases in which convictions are based on DNA evidence, videotaped evidence or a videotaped confession.

The bill was approved by the Senate earlier this month.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, who had supported a full repeal of the death penalty, came out last week in support of the bill because, he said, it “represented progress” over current law.

Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg, Baltimore City Democrat and a primary sponsor of a repeal bill in the House, also switched his support to the compromise bill.

“This is a system that is fatally flawed and at best cannot be optimally improved. But the reality is this is a political world, and it [the bill] is the best we’ll have for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, five people have been executed, and another five are on death row.

Meanwhile, members of the committee who failed in several attempts to amend the bill say that their chamber has sold itself out to Mr. O’Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, who said during the Senate debate that he would not allow any changes to the bill by the House.

“We don’t serve the governor, we don’t serve the Senate, we should be able to make an amendment if we choose,” said Delegate Michael D. Smigiel, Caroline Republican, who wanted to make contract killings eligible for the death penalty.

At least a dozen other amendments were rejected 14-7 by the committee on a mostly party-line basis. Delegate Kevin Kelley, Allegany Democrat, was the sole member of his party to oppose the bill.

Most of the amendments dealt with the concern that the death penalty could not be applied even if convictions are based on substantive and reliable evidence, such as fingerprints, still photographs or audiotaped evidence.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler echoed those concerns earlier this week, saying the bill was “clumsy” in its language.

Delegate Susan K. McComas, Harford Republican, said the bill removes an important deterrent to violent crime.

“We’re going to send a message to the killing fields of Baltimore [if we pass this bill] that you can get away with murder,” she said.

Supporters of the bill said that it was an important step toward a full repeal of the death penalty.

“The political reality is this bill comes as close to a repeal as possible,” said Delegate Kathleen Dumais, Montgomery County Democrat.

Mr. Smigiel said the Senate’s actions essentially held the House hostage.

“We should be able to be allowed to make a better bill, but because of politics and because we are being dictated to by another legislative body and the executive, we can’t do that,” he said.

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