O'Malley lobbies for repeal

Governor urges an end to death penalty in Md.

General Assembly

February 22, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN REPORTER

Expending valuable political capital early in his term, Gov. Martin O'Malley appeared before two General Assembly committees yesterday to make a forceful call for repealing the death penalty. O'Malley, a Democrat, told lawmakers that the death penalty does not deter crime, carries excessive costs and damages human dignity.

"If the death penalty as applied, my friends, is inherently unjust and without a deterrent value, we are left to ask whether the value to society of partial retribution outweighs the cost of maintaining the death penalty," O'Malley testified to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

"Very mindful of and sensitive to the closure, and in some cases the comfort, that it brings to the unfathomable pain of families who have lost loved ones to violent crime, I believe that it does not."

The repeal's sponsors are hopeful that O'Malley's public lobbying - an unconventional move for a governor not advocating for his own measure - could sway critical votes on the Senate panel and on the House Judiciary Committee, which is also considering the bill.

Maryland lawmakers are wrestling this year with how to respond to a Court of Appeals ruling in December that stated lethal injection procedures should be reviewed by the legislature. The court decision effectively instituted a moratorium on executions until that process is in place.

The ruling leaves lawmakers with a pressing problem - a fact that has forced the governor into the debate earlier than expected. Officials must decide whether to draft the necessary regulations to comply with the Court of Appeals decision, leave a de facto moratorium in place or support a repeal.

Maryland, a Democratic stronghold, would appear to be politically predisposed to a repeal, but with Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in office for the past four years, proposals have stalled in the General Assembly.

Five convicted murderers have been executed in Maryland since 1978.

The battle over the death penalty, once fought more along party lines, has emerged nationally as among the most challenging issues, falling at the sometimes hazy intersection of politics, public policy and religion. In light of increasing evidence of wrongful convictions and, in the case of Florida, a botched execution, at least a dozen states have imposed moratoriums. New Jersey is moving toward a repeal.

Cautious approach

"Scientific analysis of evidence has raised serious questions and doubts about the death penalty, and the public senses this concern," said Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. "I think that there's a new mood in the country, and it might not lead to the complete abolition of the death penalty, but it's clear that government officials are taking a more cautious approach."

Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, said O'Malley has "political cover" for coming out strongly against the death penalty so early in his term. With several other states struggling to fix their systems or looking to abandon capital punishment altogether, O'Malley is moving with public opinion, Crenson said.

"I don't think he has anything to lose," he said. "His base of support is going to include a substantial majority of people who have doubt about the death penalty."

With O'Malley's backing, advocates for the repeal are hoping momentum is finally on their side.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat sponsoring the House bill, made an impassioned plea to his fellow legislators, saying the time is now to repeal the death penalty.

"It cannot be made right in this state or any other state," he said. "Our legislative colleagues across the country recognize that. It's time, very simply, that we do the same. ... We will cast no more important vote in our careers as public servants than the vote on this bill."

Baltimore Democrat Lisa A. Gladden, the bill's Senate sponsor, distributed hand-held mirrors to her colleagues at the outset of debate to emphasize how deeply personal the issue is for lawmakers.

"This issue transcends race, class and party," she said. "It is about us, and it is about how we look at ourselves in our own personal mirrors."

The governor, reading largely from an op-ed article he wrote that appeared this week in The Washington Post, argued before the Senate and House committees that the death penalty since 1978 has cost the state about $22.4 million more than the cost of life imprisonment. That money, he said, could have paid for an additional 500 police officers or drug treatment for 10,000 addicts.

"Unlike the death penalty, these are investments that actually do save lives and prevent violent crime," the governor said.

Advocates for repeal, including seven wrongfully convicted men from across the country, came to Annapolis yesterday on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season of reflection and fasting for Catholics.

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