ANNAPOLIS, Md.— Gov. O’Malley’s bill to repeal the death penalty inched one step closer to becoming law when a Senate committee passed the measure in a 6-5 vote.
The bill now moves to the full Senate floor, where it also expected to pass.
Sen. Robert Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who was once considered a potential a swing vote, threw his support behind the measure after much soul searching.
“I am forever torn on this issue,” Zirkin said. “The practical reality of our death penalty from a legal standpoint is that it just doesn’t work.”
The senator said commentary from the families of victims guided his vote.
“The victims’ families are caught in a system that never executes anybody,” Zirkin said. “In most jurisdictions, the state’s attorney won’t even seek it, and you end up with families who are put through endless appeals and never getting any closure.”
The legislation passed with an amendment that eliminates a $500,000 crime fund to aid the families of slaying victims. The language could have prevented the issue from being petitioned to a referendum vote. The Maryland Constitution bans any appropriations bill from being petitioned to voters.
Several other non-technical amendments were rejected including two proposed by Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat.
In one measure, Brochin proposed an amendment that would limit capital cases to only those with DNA evidence linking the defendant to a homicide. His second push was for an amendment that would allow the death penalty if a person commits more than one murder in the first degree. Both amendments were voted down, 6-5.
All six members of the panel who voted for the bill were Democrats.
“Human beings make mistakes,” said state Sen. Brian Frosh before offering the final vote to pass the measure.
“No matter how hard we try, we cannot beat the error out of the system,” the Montgomery County Democrat said.
Two other Democrats joined three Republicans in opposing the repeal.
“I believe that there are people who commit heinous crimes, who deserve not to live,” said State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Hartford County Republican.
In 2009, full death penalty repeal stalled in the Senate. Lawmakers instead passed a measure that limited capital cases to those with biological or DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or a videotape linking the defendant to a homicide.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who supports the death penalty, has said that he believes a measure to ban capital punishment will pass by “a comfortable margin.”
The state has five men on death row. The state’s last execution was during the administration of Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, in 2005.
Maryland’s death penalty has been on hold since a 2006 court ruling found the state’s lethal injection protocols weren’t properly approved by a legislative committee. Executions can’t resume until the protocols are approved.
Death penalty opponents applauded the vote.
“I’m very excited. We’ve been waiting for this to happen for a while,” said Jane Henderson, executive director of Citizens Against State Executions. “I think that we’re going to see bill pass the Senate floor.”
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