Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Death Penalty Repeal Dies in the Senate

The Maryland Senate has spoken: there will be no repeal of the death penalty this year. But we learned a few valuable things from the process.

First, Senator Rich Madaleno (D-18) issued this description of today’s events:

Earlier today, we finished the debate on the death penalty repeal, probably for the year. Yesterday evening, an attempt to “recommit” the repeal bill to the Judicial Proceedings Committee, a parliamentary maneuver that almost always signals the end of a bill's chance for passage, failed by a vote of 23 to 23. (One anti-repeal senator was absent.) With the votes to kill this bill with this maneuver in hand, the Democratic opponents to the repeal offered the governor a compromise this morning: accept the bill as amended yesterday and no further attempts to weaken or stop the bill would be offered. After an hour of discussion in the Senate, this position was essentially ratified when the bill was passed on to third reading. A final vote will come on Friday. The Senate President was clear that no changes from the House would be entertained later in the Session.

This is a disappointing outcome for those of us who favor repeal. We can find solace in the fact that the changes in the amended bill will reduce the number of executions and significantly diminish the chances of innocent people being executed. However, this “compromise” does not address the serious racial and geographic disparities that exist in the way death penalty prosecutions work. People prosecuted in Baltimore County are twelve times more likely to be subject to the death penalty than those prosecuted in other parts of the state. In addition, while the vast majority of murder victims in our state are minorities, all of the people on death row were convicted of murdering whites. These issues will need to be addressed in the future as this effort continues. As evidenced by the votes, we are just one or two votes short of being able to win a different outcome. And, I am sure that Governor O'Malley will continue to lead this fight over the next few years.

As additional developments occur, I will certainly let you know. I deeply appreciate the hundreds of e-mails I received about this issue. I wish I could report a bigger victory, but at least progress was made this year and a full debate did finally break out on the Senate floor.


Here are a few things we take away from this experience:

1. Senate President Mike Miller proved his vote-counting skills once again. He knew from the start that repeal would not pass the Senate but he gave the Governor and death penalty opponents a fair shot.

2. Governor O’Malley is willing to dig in and fight hard on what he sees as a matter of principle, even if it means going against a substantial part of the electorate and annoying Mike Miller. Agree with him or not, the Governor showed some guts on this one.

3. Senator Andy Harris (R-7), who has already declared his intention to run for Congress again, has made a gigantic mistake on this issue. As conservative blogger Brian Griffiths has pointed out, Harris missed a key vote on sending repeal back to committee, which would have effectively killed it. And who made the motion to kill the bill? None other than Senator E.J. Pipkin (R-36), Harris’s primary opponent for Congress last year. We’ll have more on Pipkin next week.

4. Even though his district may not be as liberal as most in Montgomery County, Delegate Craig Rice (D-15) took a politically courageous risk in opposing repeal. Montgomery is full of anti-death penalty activists, but Rice’s letter to the Senators makes for compelling reading.

The real question now is what the House of Delegates will do with the Senate’s bill, which restricts use of the death penalty but does not eliminate it. Miller has indicated that he will not go to conference to reconcile different versions of the bill. But the House will have its own ideas of what to do on the issue. Generally speaking, neither chamber reacts well to a “take-it-or-leave-it” bill from the other chamber. When I asked House Majority Leader Kumar Barve (D-17) about how the House might proceed, he answered:

Even though we impose a lot of discipline on the House Floor, we consider Abortion and the Death Penalty as “conscience” votes. We don’t whip these issues and we don’t really care how people vote (except that committee members keep their votes consistent on the floor and committee). So, we’re happy to have the House committee and House chamber do whatever they feel is appropriate. If Miller has a problem with that, it’s his problem, not ours.
That response means the death penalty debate may be far from over.