O'Malley's call

December 21, 2006

The Maryland Court of Appeal's decision requiring the state to submit its execution procedures for public review puts the fate of the death penalty squarely in the hands of Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, who personally opposes capital punishment. Mr. O'Malley best not take a walk on this issue, which he could do easily by failing to submit the execution protocol for legislative review. That could lead to a de facto moratorium on capital punishment. But it wouldn't be the responsible way to settle a debate that has passionate advocates on both sides.

With polls showing the public favoring life without parole over the death penalty and more states halting executions because of botched lethal injections, the death penalty would seem to be an expensive, unpopular, counterproductive and increasingly difficult way to administer justice. Then there are the concerns of racial and geographic bias in Maryland's use of the death penalty, which were raised in a 2003 state-sponsored study and remain unresolved. And death penalty opponents are certain to seek a repeal of the law in the next legislative session.

When he took office in 2002, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a proponent of the death penalty, lifted the state's moratorium on executions, which had been initiated by his predecessor. He opted for individual reviews of death penalty cases. Two prisoners were executed during his administration.

A petition by inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr., one of six prisoners on death row, led to Tuesday's Court of Appeals ruling. Mr. Evans, convicted in a 1983 double murder, had raised several issues - including racial disparity in the implementation of the death penalty - to have his death sentence vacated. But the court focused narrowly on the state's failure to submit execution procedures for legislative review as the reason to grant Mr. Evans some relief and halt state executions. It rejected the Paternoster study as inconclusive evidence of statewide bias.

Mr. Ehrlich doesn't have enough time left in office to properly respond to the court's ruling. It should be Mr. O'Malley's call, and the new governor would have several ways he could proceed when the General Assembly convenes in January. He could submit the current execution protocols to the legislature and let the expected debate on the merits of the death penalty unfold.

But we expect Mr. O'Malley to give this serious issue a more thorough reexamination. At the very least this legislative session, he should push for reform of the current method of lethal injection to avoid the inhumane and painful procedure now used by the state and increasingly under attack across the country.

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