Death penalty repeal sought

O'Malley backs bills to replace executions with life without parole

January 26, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday that he would sign a repeal of the death penalty if a bill reaches his desk, weighing in on the contentious issue hours after a coalition of legislators and activists renewed their push to strike Maryland's execution law from the books.

"Now that it's salient, and we have to deal with it, I'm certainly not going to try to duck or hide. I would like to see us repeal the death penalty," O'Malley said during an interview in his State House office. "I think the dollars could go to better use and could be invested in things that actually save lives. I don't believe the death penalty saves lives."

Democratic lawmakers introduced a new legislative proposal yesterday that would replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole for the most violent criminals. Sponsored by Sen. Lisa A. Gladden and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, both Baltimore Democrats, the bills come on the heels of a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling in December that halted executions until lawmakers develop appropriate oversight for the administration of lethal injections.

Five convicted murderers have been executed in Maryland since 1978, including two under warrants signed by former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a death penalty supporter who left office this month.

But with a new Democratic governor and growing national worry about how the punishment is administered and whether race is a factor, the sponsors said the time is right to rekindle a serious debate in Annapolis.

Joined yesterday by activists, including Kirk Bloodsworth, who in 1993 became the first death-row inmate in the country to be exonerated through the use of DNA evidence, they said they are working on the votes needed to get the bills out of committee.

Gladden said the bills present an opportunity for Maryland to make a statement "to our nation of who we are as a people."

"I felt that we are now at a sea change and that our communities are now speaking loudly and clearly about making sure that innocent people, perhaps, are not put to death," said Gladden, a public defender in Baltimore. "One mistake is too much."

O'Malley said he would lobby for the repeal bills, although he did not include such a measure in the legislative agenda he released this week. "There are good people who have strong feelings on both sides of that issue," he said.

Still, he expressed skepticism that a majority of the House of Delegates or the Senate will support the bills.

"I'm not overly optimistic that they will, but there's a lot of new members, and perhaps given the problems, what went on in Florida, given all of the other issues having to do with the way that it's applied, maybe there is the will to do it," the governor said. Executions in Florida were halted last month amid concerns over the way lethal injections were administered.

The December Court of Appeals ruling imposed a de facto moratorium on executions in Maryland.

Ruling unanimously in an appeal by death-row inmate Vernon L. Evans, the court determined that procedures for administering lethal injections should be considered regulations and therefore reviewed by a committee of state senators and delegates. The moratorium will stand until legislators pass a law that either exempts the procedures from review or addresses the court's regulatory concerns. Or, lawmakers could do nothing, leaving the moratorium in place.

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed a moratorium in 2002 so racial disparity and other issues could be studied, but that ban was lifted under Ehrlich, his successor. Six people sit on the state's death row; four are black, two are white.

Nationally, 38 states have the death penalty, while 12 do not, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But five of the 38 states - Kansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and South Dakota - have not executed an inmate since 1976.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said the death penalty plays a vital role in Maryland's criminal justice system.

"Maryland already has life without parole, and we've also had the death penalty, and I'm still very much in favor of the death penalty," he said. "I still think it acts as a deterrent. Certainly a deterrent of one [person], and that is the person that receives the death penalty [and] will never kill again."

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican and death penalty supporter, said victims of violent crime and their families deserve justice.

"I have more sympathy for the victims of crimes than I do for the perpetrators," Jacobs said. "I think people on both sides of the issue need to go to a family whose loved ones were tortured and killed and tell them the criminal deserves to live."

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