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Key Senator Helps Move Death Penalty Repeal to Senate Floor
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February 22, 2013
The long frustrated drive to repeal Maryland’s death penalty got a major boost last night when it won narrow approval from a state Senate committee that had long been a roadblock. WYPR’s Karen Hosler was there for the voting session and filed this report.
Karen Hosler: The Judicial Proceedings Committee’s 6 to 5 vote in favor of repealing Maryland’s death penalty was historic if not necessarily definitive. For perhaps a decade or more, the often eloquent and outspoken panel has rejected repeal efforts as non-starters. A key swing vote was supplied last night by Senator Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore county Democrat who said he has long been torn on the issue.
State Senator Bobby Zirkin: If it was purely based on emotion, I might vote to keep the death penalty in place because quite frankly you take…every time I listen to one of these stories about one of these what these monsters do, it’s like your blood just boils and you want to take their lives yourself.
Hosler: But that’s not so easy in Maryland where a tangle of factors, including Governor Martin O’Malley’s reluctance to carry out the death penalty, has created a kind of death row limbo for all involved.
Zirkin: The practical reality is that the system essentially keeps the victim’s families entangled with no resolution.
Hosler: O’Malley sponsored a repeal attempt in 2009 that was blocked when Zirkin joined an effort that retained the death penalty but limited cases in which it could be applied to those with very strong evidence, such as DNA or video tape of the crime. But the governor was convinced to lead the repeal drive again this year by advocacy groups, including the NAACP, which promised to help him round up the necessary votes. Maryland NAACP President Gerald Stansbury, which spent much of the day hovering inside and outside the committee room, was flashing a wide smile and signaling a thumbs-up.
Gerald Stansbury: Well I’m feeling really great. We had a lot of discussion, it was a long road getting here and I think it’s a very important bill that needs to be passed. It’s going to do the community very well.
Hosler: But it’s not over yet. The bipartisan conservative minority that resisted the bill in committee won’t give up without more of a battle. Baltimore County Democrat James Brochin said he and his allies will continue to fight to retain the death penalty as the ultimate weapon against killers he called the “worst of the worst.”
State Senator James Brochin: I think you are going to see a lot of these amendments brought up again on the floor of the Senate and I think that some of these amendments, while they may not have had merit in a committee of 11, may have merit in a chamber of 47. We’re going to see if we can get a coalition to come behind some of these amendments and so we can get 24 votes and at least keep the statute on the books.
Hosler: Maryland’s death penalty has been off the books before, most recently reappearing in 1978 after equally vigorous debate. Perhaps the key question now facing lawmakers is what happens if the death penalty, which hasn’t been used in nearly a decade, is no longer at least a threat for evildoers with nothing to lose. Republican Senator Chris Shank, whose Western Maryland district includes three huge prisons, worries about the prison guards.
State Senator Christopher Shank: Because now there is no ultimate sanction, and no amount of resources or staff or hardware is going to be able to adequately protect them if somebody needs to do them harm.
Hosler: Stay tuned. The debate goes on. This time on the Senate floor. I’m Karen Hosler, reporting in Annapolis, for 88.1 WYPR
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