By Julia Maldonado for Capital News Service
Maryland moved one step closer to becoming the 18th state to abolish the death penalty after Gov. Martin O’Malley said Tuesday that he believes the state should end capital punishment completely because it is “expensive and does not work.”
The governor’s announcement could tip the scale on what has been a divisive issue in the legislature for years.
O’Malley was joined Tuesday by members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, including president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous, who was optimistic about the likelihood of abolishing the death penalty. Jealous invoked former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall of Maryland, who was a capital punishment opponent.
“Today’s a big day,” Jealous said. “We know that we have votes from the House of Delegates to the Senate up to the governor to finish what Thurgood Marshall started here many decades ago.”
The death penalty, O’Malley said, “does not work in terms of preventing violent crime, and the taking of human life.” He added that even with the death penalty written into Maryland law, Baltimore has been among the most violent cities in the U.S. in recent decades.
“We know what works,” O’Malley said. “Investing in law enforcement, investing in data-driven policing, increasing the availability of drug treatment, performance measurement, strengthening partnerships between police and neighbors...There are many, many things that work.”
There are 3,146 inmates on death row in the United States, as reported by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
Maryland has not executed a prisoner since 2005, and is among the states with the fewest number of prisoners on death row with five.
The Maryland Court of Appeals in 2006 placed a moratorium on the death penalty and ruled that the state’s protocols for lethal injections were improper and required updating.
In 2009, the current capital punishment law was passed, restricting the death penalty to cases where DNA evidence, a confession, or video evidence of the crime are available. But O’Malley proposed, then withdrew, regulations governing executions, leaving capital punishment in Maryland in limbo.
If repeal legislation passes this year, it would grant life sentences without parole to inmates currently on death row in Maryland.
Kirk Bloodsworth, who was placed on death row in Maryland in 1985 and later found innocent, was at the governor’s press conference Tuesday. Shujaa Graham, who was on death row in California and later exonerated, was also in attendance.
Earlier in the day, Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, and chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, used Bloodsworth as an example of the flaws in the current system.
Bloodsworth was convicted of a brutal rape and murder in Baltimore County and was sentenced to death. He was later found innocent through the use of DNA evidence.
“If we had put him to death the first time, there would be no way to say, ‘okay, real sorry about that Mr. Bloodsworth. Mistakes happen, we wish we had gotten it right in your case,’” Frosh said.
“When you have a death penalty,” he added, “you better be right 100 percent of the time.”
Proponents are within one vote of repealing the death penalty in the Senate, where the legislation has languished in the past, Frosh said. Having O’Malley on board with the repeal, he added, has the potential to make a huge difference.
“It looks like this is the year we’re going to get the death penalty repealed,” Frosh said.
Others in the Senate still see the need for the death penalty.
Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, said it should remain on the books for those crimes he considers “the most egregious, heinous of crimes that are out there.”
“The murder of a correctional officer is an all too real phenomenon that my district (Washington County) has personally experienced, and if you don't have that ultimate sanction, what is stopping somebody from such a crime as that?” said Shank, who represents a district with three correctional facilities.
Shank voted against the changes in the death penalty law in 2009, but now believes the cases eligible under the current law should remain eligible.
"I realize we are not going to turn the clock and go pre-2009, but definitely I think it needs to stay, (as it is),” he said.
"I don't foresee anything that could change my opinion on the subject at this point," said Shank.
Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, is undecided on what he said is not a partisan issue.
“I think that people here (in the Senate) have good reasons for supporting both sides and they can be passionate about those, but they can also be very civil,” Kittleman said. “I think we’ll give it a good, thorough vetting (on the Senate floor) and see how they’ll vote.”