A month after New Jersey became the first state in decades to abolish the death penalty, a majority of Maryland voters do not support enacting a similar repeal, according to a new Sun poll.
Fifty-seven percent said they want the death penalty to remain legal, while 33 percent said they would ban it. About 10 percent of likely voters polled said they were not sure.
Support for capital punishment ran the highest among residents of Baltimore County - where prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence for convicted killers than anywhere else in the state - and in Anne Arundel County, the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland.
"Why should we support them in jail for the rest of their lives when they're criminals?" asked Evelyn Larkin of Towson, who does bookkeeping for her son's party tent rental business. "I believe what the Bible says - an eye for an eye, and if they kill, they should be killed. I guess I'm hard-boiled at 85, right?"
The statewide poll of 904 likely voters was conducted Jan. 6 to Jan. 9 for The Sun by the independent, nonpartisan firm OpinionWorks of Annapolis. It has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Capital punishment has been the subject of intense debate in Maryland in the past several years. Opponents question whether there are racial or geographic disparities in how the death penalty is imposed here, an argument bolstered by a 2003 University of Maryland study.
Then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening enacted a yearlong moratorium while the University of Maryland study was completed, but it expired under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Last year, Gov. Martin O'Malley led a failed attempt in the General Assembly to abolish capital punishment.
Follow-up interviews with poll respondents who agreed to speak with reporters suggested that the debates in Annapolis have been mirrored across the state and continue in the minds of many death penalty supporters. Many said the decision of whether to support capital punishment is a difficult one and that they have wavered in their views over the years.
"I think so. I'm not real sure. It's too hard to say," Terry Kovacina, a 50-year-old Calvert County resident, said in explanation of her support for the death penalty.
Like many poll respondents who were interviewed, Kovacina expressed concern about the number of death row inmates who are later exonerated by DNA evidence and the possibility that an innocent person could be put to death for crimes he or she did not commit.
"What if they're wrong? What if the decision is wrong and we kill somebody who didn't really do it?" asked Kovacina, who works as a supervisor at a direct mailing operation. "In most cases, when they give the death penalty, the crime is horrendous. But if we kill them and they're not guilty, we are almost as guilty as we thought they were."
There have been 126 death row inmates exonerated since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. The first to be freed as a result of DNA evidence was Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent nine years in prison - including one on Maryland's death row - for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old Baltimore County girl.
The Sun's survey revealed weaker support for the death penalty in Maryland - one of 36 states with a capital sentencing option for convicted killers - than in a national Gallup poll conducted in October. In that survey, 69 percent of respondents around the country said they were in favor of the death penalty for a convicted murderer, while 27 percent said they were not.
But support for capital punishment drops precipitously when pollsters introduce the alternative sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
Asked in 2006 whether death or life without parole is the better penalty for murder, 47 percent chose the death penalty and 48 percent picked life without parole, according to the Gallup poll.
In Maryland, a poll of 625 registered voters conducted in February by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research revealed a similar drop. In that statewide survey, commissioned by the Maryland Catholic Conference, which opposes capital punishment, 56 percent expressed support for the death penalty while 34 percent opposed it. But asked a follow-up question, 61 percent said they thought life without parole is a suitable alternative to a death sentence.
Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said the straight yes-or-no question solicits a "gut response" that convicted killers ought to be punished as severely as possible.
"People think, `If they're going to get out of prison, I'd rather have them executed,'" she said. "But if you offer people the option of what they think is a harsh sentence that doesn't involve an execution, people will take it."