Death penalty debate moves to House as MCC advances other important issues

In the wake of the Maryland Senate’s rejection of a ban on the death penalty, repeal advocates are shifting their attention to the House of Delegates where the Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the controversial issue in a March 17 hearing.

Senators rejected an outright ban, opting instead to amend Gov. Martin J. O’Malley’s original bill to require videotaped or DNA evidence before the state could execute someone.

“I do think there’s a sentiment that the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment did a very thorough study on the issue and that those findings weren’t given a sufficient airing on the Senate floor,” said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference (MCC).

The commission, which recommended repeal, found that the death penalty is unfairly applied on the basis of race and geography and that it poses a serious risk of executing innocent people.

“Whether the House chamber will have an interest in pursuing full repeal, based on what happened in the Senate, is the real question,” Ms. Russell said.

While disappointed that the Senate did not approve appeal, Ms. Russell said much progress has been made on an issue that has raised intense emotions at committee hearings.

The death penalty made it to the full Senate for the first time since capital punishment was reinstated 31 years ago. Senators employed a rare procedural move, voting 25-21 to reject an unfavorable recommendation on the bill by the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“I think the visibility of the issue has been very, very helpful in terms of getting out to the general public what the very, very valid arguments are against the death penalty,” Ms. Russell said.

While repeal advocates continue pushing for an outright ban, Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., a death penalty supporter, is hopeful the governor and the House of Delegates will accept the amended measure without changes.

“I think the message that (Sen. Miller) has really tried to drive home is that this is the best compromise that the Senate is going to be able to fashion,” said Patrick Murray, the Calvert County and Prince George’s County Democrat’s deputy chief of staff.

Even as the death penalty stole the headlines in recent weeks, other issues of concern to the Maryland Catholic Conference have also advanced in the General Assembly.

Ms. Russell hailed Del. Sue Hecht’s March 6 decision to withdraw a house bill that Catholic leaders believe would have financially devastated the church’s many ministries.

House Bill 556 would have significantly extended the time period when child sexual abuse victims could file civil lawsuits in Maryland.

Like a Senate bill that was defeated in committee on an 8-2 vote in February, the Frederick County Democrat’s measure would have extended the age when child sexual abuse victims could file for civil damages from 25 to 50. It would have also created a two-year window allowing retroactive lawsuits that are barred by existing law. Catholic leaders strongly opposed the bill, saying it did nothing to protect children and unfairly targeted the Catholic Church.

“We’re really pleased to see the bill withdrawn,” said Ms. Russell. “We hope in the future that we can focus on legislation that genuinely protects children.”

With the 90-day legislative session more than halfway finished, Julie Varner, MCC associate director for social concerns, continues to push for sufficient staffing to help process applications for food stamps, medical assistance and temporary cash assistance.

The state has a hiring freeze for positions and will not allow someone to fill vacancies without an exemption, Ms. Varner said.

“With the recession underway, we’re seeing a lot more people coming for help – including people who have never had to apply before,” Ms. Varner said. “The system is tremendously ill-equipped to handle it.”

Ms. Varner noted that Maryland is last among the 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories in processing requests for food stamps.

“We’re right below Guam,” she said. “It’s unbelievable we’re the wealthiest state in the country and we can’t process applications in a timely manner.”

Testifying at ongoing budget hearings, Ms. Varner has been pushing for more workers to be approved to help with the backlog.

The MCC continues lobbying for a business tax credit to provide support to nonpublic and public school students and teachers (see page 17). It also opposes a same-sex marriage bill and a bill to create a protected class for transgendered persons.

Gary Gately contributed to this story.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.