The death penalty law Gov. Martin O'Malley signed Thursday didn't give opponents of capital punishment everything they wanted, but it marked a significant step toward ending executions in Maryland by significantly narrowing the circumstances under which the ultimate punishment can be imposed.
Under the new law, prosecutors may seek the death penalty only in cases where there is DNA or biological evidence, a videotape of the crime or a video-recorded confession by the killer. The new limitations make Maryland's death penalty law among the most restrictive in the country.
Mr. O'Malley has been a long-time opponent of capital punishment on both moral and practical grounds. Among the latter are the findings of a state commission on capital punishment the governor appointed last year, which reported that Maryland's death penalty law does not deter crime and is far more costly to apply than a sentence of life without parole; that it is fraught with risk for executing innocent people; and that it delays closure for the families of crime victims.
From a moral perspective, the death penalty is a barbaric throwback to an earlier era of primitive, retributive justice - an eye or an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We no longer cut off the hands of thieves; nor should we take the lives even of those who have taken the lives of others. That is why this newspaper has consistently called for abolishing capital punishment in all circumstances, as 15 states and the District of Columbia already have.
But given his strong convictions on this issue, there is still one thing in his power that Mr. O'Malley has not done: Commute the sentences of those already on Maryland's death row. At the very least, he should consider whether the five inmates currently condemned to death would have received that sentence under the new standards approved by the legislature.
It is true that lawmakers did not intend the restrictions they passed this year to be retroactive, and critics will object that applying them now to past cases violates the legislative and judicial process. But it seems hypocritical to place severe restrictions on future executions while allowing those already in the pipeline to proceed. Either we believe those standards are necessary to ensure that the innocent aren't executed, or we don't.
Moreover, the review process has always included the power of the governor to commute sentences for any reason he sees fit. Such an action would no doubt cause a political furor that might even damage the governor's re-election prospects. But what is more important to Mr. O'Malley - politics, or his moral beliefs?