Maryland lawmakers voted to repeal the death penalty following five other U.S. states that have ended capital punishment in the past six years.
The House of Delegates today passed a bill that would stop prosecutors from seeking to execute those convicted of murder, the only crime for which the state allows capital punishment. The measure passed the Senate earlier this month, and Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley plans to sign it, said Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman.
“This is the ultimate power of the state -- the power to take a human life,” said Delegate Anne Healey, a Democrat, during debate. “What we can’t live with, what I can’t live with, is if we do make a mistake, it costs someone his life.”
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O’Malley, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, had pressed lawmakers to adopt the ban. The legislature is also moving toward adopting some of the nation’s strictest gun laws backed by O’Malley, including new licensing requirements for handguns, in response to the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
O’Malley today praised the legislature’s vote at a news conference in Annapolis, the capital. The state has “a moral responsibility to stop doing the things that are wasteful, and that are expensive, and that do not work and do not save lives,” he said.
The governor will decide on a case-by-case basis the fate of five current death-row inmates, he said in a statement.
Once O’Malley signs the measure, Maryland would become the 18th state without the death penalty. New Jersey, New York, Illinois, New Mexico and Connecticut since 2007 have abolished executions amid concern about the cost, racial bias in its use and the risk of condemning those wrongfully convicted.
“There’s a pretty strong trend away from capital punishment,” said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates against the practice.
While Maryland and 32 other states allow the death penalty, its use has declined nationally over the past decade. There were 78 such sentences handed out last year, down from as many as 315 in 1996, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
In Maryland, executions are rare. Three of the five people on death row were sentenced more than 25 years ago -- and only five have been executed since the early 1990s. The most recent was Wesley Eugene Baker, who was put to death in 2005 for killing a woman in front of her two grandchildren in a shopping mall parking lot.
Executions in the state have effectively been banned since 2006, when a court ruled that the regulatory procedures for administering them were adopted without required public comment. The O’Malley administration hasn’t completed regulations that would allow it to be reintroduced.
O’Malley, who was first elected governor in 2006, has maintained that the death penalty fails to deter crime, costs three times as much as sentencing someone to life without parole, and is prone to racial bias.
The Catholic Church and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Baltimore-based civil-rights group, joined the effort to repeal capital punishment.
During the debate in the Maryland House, some lawmakers said the death penalty should be kept as a bargaining tool for prosecutors, a way to deter potential criminals and as a punishment for crimes such as mass murder and killing children.
“The death penalty is not a deterrent, it is justice,” said Maryland Delegate C.T. Wilson, a Democrat. “What we will be setting up is a lack of faith in our system when fathers will not be able to get the justice they deserve.”
Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, said in 2011 he wouldn’t allow executions during his term, a step that didn’t need legislation. In January, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat, said he would be willing to halt them in his state, if the legislature passed a bill to do so. Colorado Representative Claire Levy, a leader of the Democrats, is planning to advance a bill to do away with it there.
“We will see more states looking to take the same action,” said Shari Silberstein, the executive director of Equal Justice USA, a New York-based group that advocates for repeal.
After the 82 to 56 vote in Maryland today, cheers erupted in the House, where advocates of repealing the death penalty gathered. Among them was Kirk Bloodsworth, who was the first death-row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence.
“It can happen to anyone in this country,” he told reporters. “It’s time to do something about it and Maryland is on the way.”
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