Death penalty repeal unlikely, Senate president says
Advocates for abolishing Maryland's death penalty, which they called unfair and confusing after a recent revision, made their case Tuesday to a House of Delegates committee. But the effort is not likely to gain traction in the Senate.
"There's no sentiment in the Senate" to debate a repeal, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller in an interview Tuesday. Miller, a Southern Maryland Democrat, is a proponent of capital punishment. "We've taken it up."
Two years ago, the General Assembly wrestled with a Gov. Martin O'Malley-led repeal effort. Instead of ending capital punishment, a closely divided Senate opted for a compromise plan that further limits when prosecutors can seek death. O'Malley is not pushing a repeal this year.
Even so, advocates for ending the capital punishment argue the time is right because the state's years-long de facto moratorium will only continue as officials ponder what chemicals to use in lethal injections. There's a nationwide shortage of one part of the three-drug cocktail Maryland and other states have long used.
A law professor who testified at the House hearing criticized the 2009 compromise effort, saying Maryland's death penalty statute is now more confusing than ever. At least six capital murder cases are pending in counties across the state. Next month, two are scheduled to come to trial.
"There are significant unintended consequences of this bill that are already being litigated," said David Aaronson, a law professor at American University. He named five "ambiguous" terms that are attracting legal scrutiny.
Under the 2009 compromise legislation, which aimed to prevent innocent people from being put on death row, lawmakers determined that a prosecutor can seek death in only cases with DNA evidence, a videotape of the crime or a video-recorded confession by the killer.
But, Aaronson argued, the devil is in the details.
For example, the law specifies "biological evidence or DNA evidence" rather than just DNA evidence. What if, he asked, an investigator recovers a suspect's hair from the crime scene -- but one that does not contain DNA?
Also under the new law, any video-recording of the crime must "conclusively link" the defendant to the murder. What exactly does "conclusively link" mean? Aaronson asked. Unlike more familiar phrases such as "beyond a reasonable doubt," it is not a legal term.
But the latest repeal effort may not even make it to a Senate committee this year. Because it was filed late, the legislation is languishing in a rules committee that determines whether it can get a hearing.