By SHARAHN D. BOYKIN and LIZ FARMER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Gov. Martin O'Malley, in a rare appearance by a Maryland governor before a legislative committee, asked the General Assembly to abolish the death penalty on Wednesday, saying it failed to deter murderers and wasted money.
"Can the death penalty ever be justified as pubic policy when it inherently necessitates the occasional taking of a wrongly convicted, innocent life?" O'Malley asked members of the House Judiciary Committee at a long-awaited hearing on a number of bills that would both abolish and strengthen capital punishment.
"Are any of us willing to sacrifice a member of our own family - wrongly convicted, sentenced and executed - in order to secure the execution of five rightly convicted murders?," O'Malley asked. "Even if we were, could that public policy be called justice? I believe it can not."
But in emotional testimony before a Senate committee, which also heard death penalty legislation Wednesday, relatives of murder victims came to plead with legislators to keep capital punishment on the books.
"This makes a mockery of our justice system," Phyllis Bricker, whose parents were found bound, gagged and stabbed to death in Baltimore in 1983. "If the death penalty has a problem, let's fix it. If it has faults lets fix it. But let's not get rid of it."
The killer of Rose and Irvin Bronstein, Bricker's parents, is now one of six persons on Maryland's death row.
The appearance of a governor before a legislative committee to testify on a bill that is not part of his administration's legislative package is unusual, and underscores O'Malley's own deep opposition to capital punishment as well as momentum in the Assembly this year to abolish the death penalty.
The Court of Appeals has placed a moratorium on executions in Maryland because of flaws it detected in the adoption of procedures used in executions. Death penalty opponents, with an ally in the governor's office for the first time in decades, are using the opportunity to push for complete abolition.
"The death penalty has failed murder victims' families in every way, and many of us - including many who support the death penalty in principle - have come to support its end," said Vicki Schieber, whose daughter was murdered in 1998.
However, competing for legislators' attention were bills to strengthen the death penalty or cure its flaws.
The key battleground is likely to be the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, which is said to be almost evenly divided on the issue.
O'Malley faced opposition from death penalty proponents who said they were concerned about the safety of prison personnel.
"Because you don't know that someday somewhere sometime in the 50 years he's in jail, that he's not going to kill again," said Scott Shellenberger, the State's Attorney for Baltimore County, in an interview. "You can't keep somebody in solitary confinement twenty-four seven."