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State Senate Votes to Repeal Death Penalty
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March 6, 2013
by Karen Hosler
The State Senate voted by a comfortable margin today to repeal Maryland’s death penalty, probably assuring the legislation will be enacted this year. A referendum challenge is considered likely, though. Capping four days of emotional debate, the Senate voted 27 to 20 to repeal Maryland’s death penalty and send the measure to the House, where its approval is expected. The vote is considered a political win for Governor Martin O’Malley, who sought repeal in 2009 only to see the capital punishment law tightened.
Today’s vote also marks a turning point in a decade-long campaign to do away with a practice that has been riddled with racial and jurisdictional disparities, and has been effectively on hold since O’Malley was first elected in 2006. Senator Victor Ramirez, a Prince Georges County Democrat, argued such disparities mean that similar crimes are prosecuted differently depending on where in the state they occur.
“We have a broken system. It’s upon us to fix it or to do away with it.”
Opponents of capital punishment don’t believe the law can be fixed. In fact, two of the swing votes in favor of the repeal measure were prompted by concerns that reforms made in 2009 requiring DNA evidence and videotaped confessions were ineffective. Senator Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, sponsored the 2009 reforms but voted for repeal today.
"DNA is not foolproof and a videotaped confession is about as good as a confession that’s on video tape. It doesn’t mean that’s its 100 percent.”
Senator Allan Kittleman, of Howard County, one of only two Republicans to back repeal, said he had similar concerns. He told the Senate about the case of a cab driver in England whose DNA was found on a murder victim, but was determined to be innocent.
“I have to come down with the conclu sion –the same as the senator from Baltimore County--that DNA evidence is not conclusive. I’m doing this today to protect an innocent person from being executed.”
The 20 senators who voted against repeal—evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats—continued to press their case after failing earlier in the week to amend the measure. Senate Republican Leader E.J. Pipkin argued that each of the prosecutors in Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City are elected, and thus reflect their community’s view on the use of the death penalty.
“If the community believes they want the death penalty pursued, then they indeed elect a state’s attorney that’s able to do that. Is that a problem with the system or is that part of what we should be celebrating about the system in Maryland?”
Carroll County Republican Joe Getty said his constituents are troubled by the signal the Senate is sending in voting to repeal the death penalty just days after approving sharp limits on gun ownership—another O’Malley priority.
“Their concern is the irony that they believe we are adopting a criminal justice policy that punishes law-abiding citizens, while at the same time showing great leniency for the most vicious, vile, horrific, murderers in our state.”
Perhaps both issues will have to be sorted by referendum next year—just as O’Malley leaves office with what are believed to be higher ambitions.
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