ANNAPOLIS - Legislation to repeal Maryland's death penalty scraped out of a state Senate committee Thursday night.
The measure -- a legislative priority of Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley -- would abolish the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The measure passed out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee with a 6-5 vote. It is expected to be considered by the full Senate as early as Tuesday.
The committee eliminated part of the bill that would have set aside money for programs that aid crime victims and their families. Committee Chairman Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery County, said that measure was taken out because of concern that it would prevent Marylanders from putting the bill on the ballot for referendum. Bills that appropriate money are not subject to referendum.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's and Calvert counties, has said that he expects the repeal to go to referendum.
In a letter to Frosh, O'Malley said he would independently set aside that money for victims' aid.
The committee also instructed the governor to commute the sentences of Maryland's five current death row inmates to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The wording of the original bill was vague as to which punishment those inmates should receive.
Committee members also killed a number of poison pill amendments that would have either watered down or gutted the death penalty repeal.
Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington County, wanted to make the repeal an amendment to Maryland's Constitution. He said it would be the only way to make absolutely sure voters get to decide the fate of capital punishment.
A constitutional amendment also requires 29 votes to pass the Senate, instead of the usual 24, and legislative leaders have said they believe they barely have the 24.
Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, offered two failed amendments to keep the death penalty. One would have allowed capital punishment only in cases where DNA evidence proved a suspect guilty. The other would have allowed the death penalty only in cases where a criminal kills more than one person in a single incident.
Maryland hasn't executed anybody since 2005, and only five convicts in the last 50 years. The state hasn't been able to since 2006, when Maryland's highest court threw out the rules for lethal injection. That happened a year before O'Malley took office, and his administration has not put new procedures in place.
In 2009, Maryland passed the most restrictive death penalty overhaul in the country, reserving its use for cases where there was DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or video of the accused committing the crime.