Death penalty issue No. 1

Impact of moratorium to be felt in races for governor, Assembly

`It'll be the talk of the town'

Sept. deadline for study will put any change in law on next year's agenda

May 12, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Until last week, the death penalty had largely been a hypothetical issue in Maryland politics, with prospects for outlawing capital punishment considered remote at best.

But Gov. Parris N. Glendening's decision to halt executions through the end of his term promises to put the issue at the center of debate for the fall elections.

"It brings the death penalty right to the front of the line of the issues," said Carol A. Arscott, a pollster based in Annapolis. "Everyone is going to be asked, and everyone is going to have to have an adequate answer."

Many lawmakers say Glendening's action will make capital punishment an issue not just in the gubernatorial race, but also in the 188 General Assembly campaigns.

"It will raise the conscience level of the voters," said Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's County Democrat who opposes the death penalty. "This puts it on the front page. It's raising public opinion. It'll be the talk of the town."

In declaring the moratorium on executions, the governor said he wants to wait for the results of a state-sponsored study into questions of racial and geographic disparities in how the death penalty is administered in Maryland.

The next governor - and the next set of senators and delegates - will be forced to grapple with the results of the study and figure out what changes, if any, to make to Maryland's system of capital punishment.

"The issue before the General Assembly is going to be whether we will continue to have a death penalty in the state of Maryland," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and opponent of the moratorium.

"I don't care what anybody says; the issue isn't going to be moratorium safeguards or additional appeals. The issue is going to be the repeal of the death penalty," Jimeno said.

In the gubernatorial campaign, the two most prominent announced candidates - Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - say they support the death penalty but differ on the moratorium.

Townsend, a Democrat, supports Glendening's decision to delay executions until the study is completed. Ehrlich, a Republican, says adequate safeguards are in place and opposes the moratorium.

A third potential big-name gubernatorial candidate - Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - backs the moratorium. Unlike Townsend and Ehrlich, O'Malley opposes capital punishment. "It is not a deterrent, nor is it adequate repayment for the taking of another life," he said.

Supporters and opponents of the death penalty are pledging to make the issue as high profile as possible during the summer and fall campaigns.

"We're going to be out there and asking questions, pushing candidates to address the issue," said Jane Henderson of the Quixote Center, a national group based in Hyattsville calling for death penalty moratoriums.

Maryland Republicans - who generally back capital punishment - say they hope to use the issue to make inroads into Democratic legislative majorities.

"It's just another issue that separates the majority of the Republicans from the majority of the Democrats," said Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a Baltimore County Republican and the House minority leader.

"I think this certainly is going to resonate," Redmer said. "I think it's clear that Glendening has bowed to the wishes of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and has done something that I think is in direct contradiction of the wishes of most of the citizens of Maryland."

A poll conducted in January for The Sun found Marylanders evenly divided on a moratorium - though opinions varied significantly by ethnicity and geography. Black voters were far more likely to support a moratorium than white voters, and residents of Baltimore City and Montgomery County were most likely to back a moratorium.

On the broader issue of the death penalty as an option in Maryland, other polls have found that a majority of voters support capital punishment.

In the Assembly, many Democratic leaders firmly support the death penalty and vow to block any effort to abolish it. The most recent legislative action on capital punishment was last year, when the House of Delegates approved a moratorium but the Senate filibustered the measure.

"I have been for [capital punishment] all my life," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat. "If there's a gallows, I'll pull the lever. If there's a gas chamber, I'll turn the valve. If it's lethal injection, I'll insert the needle," Miller said.

When the newly elected Assembly and governor gather in Annapolis in January, they will face the results of the two-year study on the fairness of capital punishment in Maryland. The researcher expects to have his report completed by September, potentially forcing candidates to take campaign positions on the recommendations in the weeks before the election in November.

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