By MICHAEL FROST
ANNAPOLIS (March 26, 2009) - Maryland seems destined to have one of the country's most restrictive death penalty laws after the House of Delegates passed a capital punishment reform bill Thursday.
The bill, which passed 87-52, is now bound for Gov. Martin O'Malley's desk for final approval.
Approved by the Senate on March 5, the legislation limits use of the death penalty to first-degree murder cases with biological or DNA evidence, videotaped voluntary confessions or video linking defendants to a crime.
The restrictions are far less than the full repeal initially sought by O'Malley, who praised the House for passing what he called "one of the strictest death penalty laws in the nation."
"I look forward to signing this bill into law in the coming weeks," O'Malley said in a statement.
Some death penalty supporters, however, said the bill would create an arbitrary system that will make capital punishment nearly impossible to implement.
Delegate Rick Impallaria, R-Baltimore County, one of several Baltimore County delegates to oppose the bill, said it was a de facto repeal of the death penalty.
"It's gone," he said. "The death penalty is gone."
Delegates rejected six amendments Wednesday, including two to expand eligibility to convicts who kill again while serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Proponents of the amendments argued that the death penalty was the sole deterrent in such situations.
"There's nothing else you can do to them," said Delegate Michael Smigiel Sr., R-Caroline, who proposed one of the amendments.
Smigiel later said the unaltered bill would amount to "a continuation of an arbitrary application" that had been used as an argument for repeal of the existing law.
Attorney General Douglas Gansler, a death penalty supporter, has expressed concerns about many of the same issues as the delegates who proposed amendments over the past two days. Gansler said last week that the bill does not include fingerprints, ballistics evidence, photographs and non-videotaped confessions as qualifying evidence for capital cases.
Five men have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in Maryland in 1978, and five more remain on death row.
No executions have been carried out since 2006, when the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the state's lethal injection protocol did not comply with state law. O'Malley has indicated that he will help implement regulations to allow executions to resume in the state once the bill becomes law.
The amendments passed in the Senate were designed to prevent anyone else from suffering the fate of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was sentenced to death based largely on eyewitness testimony. Bloodsworth spent two years on death row before eventually being exonerated by DNA evidence.
Some death penalty supporters voted in favor of the bill in spite of its imperfections, including Delegate Craig Rice, D-Montgomery, who called the vote "the most difficult vote that I've ever had to place."
Rice's aunt and cousin were murdered along with a nurse after his former uncle, Lawrence Horn, hired a contract killer. Rice said that despite the fact that the bill wouldn't cover contract murders, in the end it was more important to protect against the possibility of executing an innocent person.
"I feel as though, as a proponent and supporter of the death penalty, that we need to lay to rest the concerns and fears that we are putting people to death that are innocent," he said.
Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, R-Calvert, was much more cynical.
"In my opinion, in the final analysis it was determined by people trying to salvage a political victory for political sake," he said, "and were willing to sacrifice the work product of this Legislature to salvage that political victory."
Capital News Service's Dylan Waugh contributed to this report.