By MICHAEL FROST
ANNAPOLIS (March 4, 2009)—A bill to repeal the death penalty suffered a major setback on the Senate floor Tuesday despite an intense, last-minute lobbying effort by Gov. Martin O'Malley.
The passage of an amendment by Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, preventing defendants from being sentenced to death based solely on eyewitness testimony, changed the nature of the bill from one repealing the death penalty to one that would set tighter restrictions on its use.
Brochin's amendment was followed by another by Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, that would require biological or DNA evidence, videotaped voluntary confessions or video linking defendants to a crime in order for cases to become eligible for capital punishment. That amendment also passed.
The Senate will debate additional amendments Wednesday morning.
"The death penalty is still on the books," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, a death penalty supporter.
O'Malley, who co-sponsored the bill, remained optimistic in an evening press conference.
"That is a move forward. It might not be everything that those of us who want to repeal the death penalty would like, but it is the product of an honest and open dialogue and discussion," he said.
Tuesday morning, Miller authorized a vote in the Senate to substitute the original repeal bill for the unfavorable recommendation of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, the same tactic that led to the death penalty's reinstatement in 1978.
Procedural rules created considerable confusion during the Senate's special session Tuesday afternoon, causing Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Caroline, to propose sending the bill back to committee. With one member absent, a vote to do so deadlocked 23-23.
Pipkin later said the confusion over the various proposed amendments was "not a high moment" for the Senate.
Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, who co-sponsored the bill with O'Malley, said she was caught off guard by the amendments that effectively undid the bill.
"Nobody knew it was happening," she said. "It was so swiftly done."
The chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, said he wasn't surprised about the amendments undercutting the bill. Frosh wasn't optimistic about the prospects for repeal.
"There's still hope for this year," Frosh said. "But I'd say it gets dimmer after today."
Five men have been executed in Maryland since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, and five more remain on death row. A de facto moratorium has been in place since 2006, when the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the state's lethal injection protocol did not comply with state law.
In December, the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment voted 13-9 in favor of repeal.
Tuesday's showdown came after a heavy weekend of lobbying, fueled in a large part by O'Malley, who urged the public to contact senators. O'Malley's office said it sent out approximately 60,000 e-mails over the weekend.
"I am appreciative of the fact that President Miller and other members of the Senate leadership have allowed this debate to take place," O'Malley said.
Tuesday morning, Miller said he was surprised by the extent of the governor's lobbying efforts, but felt that it was an important issue that he didn't mind debating. By the end of the day, his tune had changed.
"This is not the Baltimore City Council, this is the Senate of Maryland," Miller said, referring to O'Malley's previous position as mayor of Baltimore.
"I love the governor, he's my governor, but in terms of this issue we're not going to be swayed by partisan politics, we're not going to be swayed by ginning up votes in Baltimore City and Montgomery County and elsewhere," he said.
Miller said he knew the process would be messy.
"I told the governor that's what was going to happen," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.