ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on Thursday urged lawmakers to abolish the death penalty this year, with repeal efforts appearing to be on stronger ground than when he last tried in 2009.
The Democratic governor denounced capital punishment during a Senate committee hearing, calling it inaccurate, costly, racially biased and ineffective in deterring violent criminals. O’Malley, who has made the ban on capital punishment a top legislative priority this session, urged lawmakers to support a measure that makes life without the possibility of parole the state’s most severe punishment.
“The death penalty is expensive, and the overwhelming evidence tells us that it does not work,” O’Malley told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “In 2011, the average murder rate in states where death is a penalty was 4.9 for every 100,000 people. In states without it, the murder rate was lower, at 4.1 per the top 100,000 people.”
But supporters of the death penalty say that capital punishment should be an option for individuals who commit the “worst of the worst” crimes. Capital punishment also serves as punitive measure for inmates who commit homicides in jail, supporters argued.
“When we live in these times and wake up and see Oklahoma City, we see Newtown, Connecticut, we see Aurora, Colorado. We see two police officers just this weekend gunned down by a cold-blooded killer,” said State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger. “Are we really going to walk away from the death penalty for individuals who commit the most heinous of acts?”
In 2009, full repeal stalled in the Senate.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who supports the death penalty, said Thursday he believes a measure to ban capital punishment will pass by “a comfortable margin.” But he thinks supporters of capital punishment will petition the bill to the ballot for voters to decide in 2014.
In 2009, lawmakers decided to restrict the death penalty to murder cases with DNA evidence, videotaped evidence or a videotaped confession.
Some lawmakers have questioned whether a provision in the bill that sets aside $500,000 for victims’ families could mean the bill could not be petitioned to referendum, because of the financial appropriation component. Miller said he would like to see that provision taken out.
“It’s a subterfuge to try to avoid petitioning it to referendum,” Miller, D-Calvert, said.
Death penalty opponents cited the disproportionate number of African Americans who have been executed in Maryland and nationwide to support their arguments.
“Given the fact that almost everybody who has been executed in the state of Maryland is an African American, it seems that the death penalty is probably not fair,” said Sen. Lisa Gladden, a sponsor of death penalty repeal bills in previous years. “It seems like the death penalty is probably imposed unfairly to poor people and to African Americans.”
Echoing Gladden’s sentiments was Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, a Democrat, who said, “Thirteen percent of the American population is African American. Thirty-seven percent of our inmate population is African American, and 41 percent of those who are on death row are African American. It just doesn’t add up.”
Brown, who is black, said he fears a system that is more likely to put his son on death row than someone who is white.
NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous made the plea against the death penalty by highlighting a series of exonerations, including that of Kirk Bloodsworth, a Maryland man who spent two years on death row and was later released from prison because of DNA evidence.
Maryland’s death penalty has been on hold since a 2006 court ruling found the state’s lethal injection protocols weren’t properly approved by a legislative committee. Executions can’t resume until the protocols are approved.
Maryland’s last execution was under then-Gov. Bob Ehrlich, a Republican, in 2005, when Wesley Eugene Baker was put to death for the 1991 murder of a woman at a Baltimore County shopping center. Since 1976, Maryland has executed five people. Five men remain on death row.
Thirty-three states still have the death penalty. If repealed, Maryland would be the sixth state to do so in recent years.
The House Judiciary Committee also heard testimony from O’Malley on Thursday.
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