Maryland lawmakers are expected to pass legislation this week to limit capital punishment, despite a chorus of dissatisfaction from House Democrats to Republicans to the top law enforcement officer in the state.
“It’s an abomination; it’s totally unworkable” said Delegate Susan McComas, Harford County Republican and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, describing the bill passed by the state Senate earlier this month.
Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat and a Catholic, made an all-out effort this year for a full repeal of capital punishment in Maryland.
However, the Senate, which rejected previous repeal efforts, amended the bill so that only cases with DNA evidence, videotaped evidence or a videotaped confession were eligible for the death penalty.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Southern Maryland Democrat who does not support a repeal, gave House lawmakers a take-it-or-leave it offer, saying his chamber would not accept amendments or a compromise bill.
The House is expected to begin debate on the bill Tuesday, with a likely decision to either pass or reject it by the end of the week.
Miss McComas, who thinks the death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime, said the bill was flawed because it leaves too many murder cases - including contract killings and those with fingerprints or audiotaped evidence - not eligible for capital punishment.
“I hope those who support this bill can still keep a clean conscience when a person dies because it was passed,” she said.
Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons, Montgomery Democrat and advocate for a repeal of the death penalty, said the O’Malley-Miller compromise was counterproductive and stops a full repeal from consideration in future General Assembly sessions.
“I’d rather admit failure,” Mr. Simmons said. “When a bill like this passes, a hiatus sets in. Those who tout this as a real solution to the current statute, they’re over-egging the pudding.”
Mr. O’Malley said last week the bill “represented progress” over existing law.
“We wanted to go as far as we could with the repeal bill, and this is as far as we could go,” he said.
Other repeal advocates have similar opinions.
Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said the compromise was a “good reform,” and that it will lessen the possibility of an innocent person being executed.
The use of DNA evidence has been a primary factor in motivating at least 15 states to ban the death penalty. At least 234 people, many convicted of murder, have been exonerated through DNA evidence nationwide since 1989.
Opponents question the merits of the Maryland bill and the unusual parliamentary procedure Mr. Miller used to get it to a full Senate vote.
Delegate Michael D. Smigiel Sr., Cecil Republican, said that the House is essentially being dictated to by other bodies in the government.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said. “If that’s how it is, then why are we here?”
Miss McComas agreed.
“We have a bicameral legislature for a reason, and House lawmakers have essentially said we’re going to rubber-stamp the Senate bill,” she said. “It’s a dereliction of duty on the part of the House.”
State Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a death-penalty supporter, has called the bill “clumsy and ill-advised.”
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, five people have been executed in Maryland, and five more are now on death row.
There has been a de facto moratorium on executions since 2006, when the state’s highest court ruled that lethal injection protocols needed to be revised.
Even with the gripes, it is widely expected that the House will pass the bill as it stands. House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, expects a flurry of amendments by opponents, but said the bill should pass without changes.