- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

ANNAPOLIS | The Maryland General Assembly is not likely to vote this year on legislation to abolish the state’s death penalty, Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, a Democrat who introduced the legislation, said Tuesday.

Mr. Rosenberg, Baltimore Democrat, said the House bill has significant support from Democratic legislators, but time is expiring on the 2011 Assembly session that officially closes April 11.

“We’re working for next year,” Mr. Rosenberg said hours before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill. “We’re trying to educate members and increase our numbers in the House.”

The legislation attempted to end capital punishment three years after a state-appointed commission recommended a ban owing to the system’s perceived racial bias and excessive costs.

Mr. Rosenberg, one of 61 sponsors of the House bill, said the legislation has wide support in both of the Assembly’s chambers.

The revelation by Mr. Rosenberg that the bill would go without a vote this year was backed by Republicans and fellow Democrats on the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, including Delegate Luiz Simmons, Montgomery Democrat.

Delegate Michael McDermott, Worcester Republican and committee member who favors keeping the death penalty, had a similar take, except he thinks Democratic leaders are reluctant to support the legislation this late in the session.

Maryland has executed just five criminals since 1976, and none since 2005. The state now has five inmates on death row.

Texas has executed the most convicts in that span with 466. Virginia is second with 108.

Opposition to the Maryland death penalty has increased since 2002, when then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, ordered a moratorium on the practice to allow for a study into its possible racial bias. Some studies showed death sentences were more likely when criminals were black or victims were white.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, lifted the ban in 2004 — allowing for an execution in 2004 and in 2005. But the state’s Court of Appeals imposed a new moratorium in 2006 after ruling state regulations on lethal injections were outdated.

In 2008, a 23-member committee recommended the state abolish the death penalty owing to evidence of racial and socioeconomic disparities, the risk of wrongful executions and the cost and emotional stress on victims’ families caused by lengthy appeals processes.

“You cannot fix this system, so we need to get rid of it,” said Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, a death-penalty foe who in 1985 was sentenced to death in Maryland for the murder and rape of a 9-year-old girl, but was later exonerated by DNA evidence and released in 1993.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, has urged legislators for several years to ban the death penalty, but a 2009 bill to do just that was rejected by the state Senate.

As a compromise, legislators passed a law that limits the death penalty to only first-degree murder cases with biological or DNA evidence, videotaped confessions or conclusive video evidence.

Some Republican lawmakers have criticized the law, arguing it effectively ended the death penalty by requiring such a high burden of proof.

“It basically does not exist in Maryland, and I think that what we’re playing with now is semantics,” Mr. McDermott said. “I don’t think it’s an option you should take off the table, even if you don’t use it.”

The death penalty has been abolished in 14 states, with the Illinois legislature and governor most recently approving a ban this year.

In the past year, many states have also halted or delayed executions owing to a nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental, a chemical commonly used in lethal injections.

In addition to banning the death penalty, Mr. Rosenberg’s bill would reduce sentences for the state’s death-row inmates to life without parole.

He said he expects a similar bill to be introduced next year, and that it is unlikely to face the same opposition as in 2009.

The 47-member Senate, which added 10 new members and gained two Democratic seats this year, is considering a similar death-penalty repeal bill on which 21 senators are co-sponsors. However, it has yet to be introduced in that chamber’s Judiciary Committee.

“The Senate is a more liberal body now than it was,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “We now have the 24 votes needed to pass the bill.”

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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