Death penalty repeal survives test in Senate

The governor's bill to repeal Maryland's death penalty survived a key vote Friday in the state Senate.

After an emotional debate, senators voted 27-19 to defeat an amendment that would have kept capital punishment for murders committed along with other serious crimes.

"It's an excellent harbinger for us," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, the floor leader for the pro-repeal forces.

After the vote, the Senate paused its debate on the bill, which if passed would make Maryland the 18th state to eliminate the death penalty. Senators are expected to resume debate at 8 p.m. Monday, when they are scheduled to work late into the night considering other amendments that opponents are likely to offer.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he hopes to finish work on the amendments that night and to bring the bill up for a final vote Tuesday.

Supporters of death penalty repeal expressed confidence that they have enough votes to defeat the amendments and win the final Senate vote. They have long contended that they have the votes in the House to pass a repeal bill.

Much of Friday's debate centered on two murders in which the victims were young girls.

Opponents of the death penalty pointed to the killing of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton in Baltimore County in 1984. Kirk Bloodsworth, an Eastern Shore waterman, was convicted and sentenced to death, but years later became the first American on death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

Bloodsworth, now an activist against the death penalty, watched from the gallery as proponents of repeal pointed to his case as an example of the danger of executing an innocent person.

"With the death penalty, there's no going back. Death is forever," Raskin said.

Supporters of the death penalty recalled the killing of 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell of Salisbury in December 2009 — a crime that received statewide attention when a massive search effort led to the discovery of her burned body on Christmas Day. Thomas J. Leggs Jr., a repeat sex offender, was sentenced to life without parole.

Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican, recounted in graphic detail the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of the girl. He pleaded for his amendment to keep the death penalty for murders committed along with arson, rape, serious sexual offenses, robbery or armed carjacking.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican, agreed that Maryland needs to keep the death penalty for cases such as the Foxwell killing.

"There is evil that walks among us," he said. "We have to leave that option for the worst of the worst."

Two Republicans, Sen. Allan H. Kittleman of Howard County and Sen. Edward R. Reilly of Anne Arundel, joined 25 Democrats in rejecting the amendment. Ten Democrats and nine Republicans voted in favor.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, has made repeal part of his legislative agenda this year. In 2009, he had to settle for a compromise that significantly restricted the circumstances under which the death penalty can be imposed.

Maryland has five men on death row — for murders that go back as far as 1983 — but has not executed anyone since 2005. The state has operated under a de facto death penalty moratorium since 2006, when the state's top court struck down the rules under which executions are carried out.

The repeal bill cleared a barrier last week when it was approved by the Judicial Proceedings Committee, where similar legislation has failed in the past. Raskin said the committee concluded that the death penalty system is not working. He said prosecutors seek capital punishment in less than half of 1 percent of eligible cases.

Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, an Upper Shore Republican, said that shows that Maryland's existing law is working.

"You can say it's being used judiciously and sparingly," Pipkin said.

Pipkin said repeal opponents had not decided whether to mount a filibuster.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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