ANNAPOLIS – This week’s debate over the proposed repeal of the death penalty in Maryland produced one of the most contentious discussions thus far during the current General Assembly session, but local representatives in Annapolis are clearly of one mind over the passionate issue.
Governor Martin O’Malley’s push for a complete repeal of the death penalty in Maryland appears to have died this week with the passage of a Senate version of a bill that would keep the sentencing extreme in place under certain circumstances. The compromise version of the bill passed by the Senate would reserve the death penalty in certain cases where rigorous standards are met including the presence of DNA evidence supporting a conviction, an actual videotape of the crime or a video confession of a defendant in a capital case.
The death penalty bill in the Senate produced rigorous debate from both sides of the issue, and Senator Lowell Stoltzfus (R-38) found himself in the middle of the fray. Stoltzfus said yesterday he remains a strong advocate of the death penalty in Maryland, but supported the compromise bill hammered out by his colleagues.
“I’m troubled by the potential of executing an innocent person, but I fully support the death penalty,” he said. “I think the compromise bill that came through after all the debate in the Senate this week is perfect, in the sense that any bill dealing with the death penalty can be perfect.”
With the Senate compromise bill approved, the heated debate will now cross over to the House, which is considering its own version of repeal legislation. Ultimately, a compromise between the House and Senate versions will likely be necessary for any meaningful change in the state’s policy to emerge, but Stoltzfus said this week the Senate will probably not budge on its version.
“Regardless of what happens in the House, I believe the Senate will not compromise the legislation any further,” he said. “It is not negotiable.”
With the debate now on its way to the House, local Delegate James Mathias (D-38B) said yesterday he is prepared
to listen to impassioned testimony from both sides, but has preconceived opinions about the weighty issue
“I support keeping the death penalty as a sentencing alternative in Maryland,” he said. “I will listen to the debate, but for a variety of reasons, I believe the death penalty is a responsible means of sentencing for the most heinous of crimes.”
In December, the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, created by the General Assembly in 2008, issued its final report after months of testimony from every side of the issue and recommended the death penalty be abolished in the state, which set the stage for the battle in the current session. One of the key elements in the commission’s report was the potential for safety risks for those dealing with dangerous inmates sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. It was an issue Mathias cited this week in his support of keeping the death penalty.
“For me, it keeps coming back to those people on the front lines in law enforcement, corrections and social work who are dealing with folks incarcerated for life without parole,” he said. “Without the hammer of the death penalty hanging over them, they could kill again. I just don’t see any other deterrent.”
Mathias said he is anticipating a debate in the House at least as fierce as the one waged in the Senate over the last few days.
“As I make my rounds, I’m hearing a lot of different opinions,” he said. “From what I hear, it’s going to get a full-flavored debate in the House. Those committed to a repeal will get their say, just as those opposed to repealing the death penalty will.”
In 1972, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty across the nation but restored it four years later in 1976 holding that states be given discretion to enact their own statutes. After more than 30 years without an execution in Maryland, convicted murderer John Thanos, whose killing spree extended to Worcester County, was executed in May 1994, becoming the first person to be executed under Maryland new capital punishment statute. Including Thanos, there have been five executions in Maryland since 1994 and there are currently five convicted criminals on death row in the state.
The death penalty issue has remained a steady fixture in the General Assembly for much of the last decade. In 2001, a bill requiring a moratorium on capital punishment in Maryland passed the House, but was killed after a long filibuster in the Senate as the session expired. In 2002, then-Governor Parris Glendening enacted an executive moratorium on executions until the completion and review of a study of capital punishment.
In 2003, Governor Robert Ehrlich lifted the moratorium after the aforementioned study was released and recommended keeping the death penalty. As a result, Maryland’s first execution in six years was carried out in June 2004 when convicted murderer Stephen Oken was put to death.