BISHOPVILLE, Md. ─ Eight years have passed since Maryland law enforcement terminated a human life based on the death penalty statute. The General Assembly voted 82-56 on March 15 to join 18 other states in abolishing the death penalty. Critics claim it is too expensive and subject to human error and bias. Gov. Martin O’Malley has pushed to repeal the death penalty since he became the governor of Maryland in 2007.
The House advanced the repeal legislation this week after delegates rejected nearly 20 amendments, mostly from Republicans, aimed at keeping capital punishment for the most heinous of crimes. The law’s passage reflects a growing unease among lawmakers in Maryland, and across the country, over the risk of putting an innocent person to death. Life without the possibility of parole will become the most severe sentence in the state with passage of the law.
Supporters of repeal argue that the death penalty is too expensive due to the cost of the appellate process, that it is error-prone, racially biased and a not in fact a deterrent of crime. Opponents of repeal say it is a required tool to punish lawbreakers who commit the most serious crimes. Passage would mark a major victory for O’Malley. Aides said he will sign the bill in coming weeks.
The passage of the act would not apply to the five men Maryland currently have on death row. The governor has the option to commute their sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The state’s last execution took place in during the administration of Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich in 2005. He resumed executions after a moratorium had been placed pending a 2003 University of Maryland study. The study found significant racial and geographic disparity in how the death penalty was carried out. Capital punishment was put on hold in 2006 in Maryland after a ruling by Maryland’s highest court. The court found that the state’s lethal injection protocols weren’t properly approved by a legislative committee. The committee has yet to sign off on protocols.
O’Malley, a Catholic, expressed support for repeal legislation in 2007, which stalled in a Senate committee. Maryland has a large Catholic population and the church opposes the death penalty.
In 2008, lawmakers created a commission to study the matter after repeal efforts failed. The panel recommended a ban later that year, citing racial, income and jurisdictional disparities in how the death penalty is applied. Lawmakers tightened the law to reduce the chances of mistakes in capital cases by restricting capital punishment to murder cases with biological evidence such as DNA, videotaped evidence of a murder or a videotaped confession.
Neighboring Virginia has executed 110 convicts since the U.S. Supreme Court restored capital punishment in 1976. Virginia’s death row population, however, has dwindled to eight from a peak of 57 in 1995. This is because fewer death sentences are being handed down in the state amid an increased acceptance of life without parole as a reasonable alternative. Death sentences have declined by 75 percent and executions by 60 percent nationally since the 1990s.
If the new legislation passes, Maryland will become the 18th state to ban the death penalty. Connecticut did so last year. Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York also have abolished it in recent years.