The House is expected to approve the measure, handing Gov. Martin O’Malley a long-sought legislative victory at a time when he is weighing a run for national office in 2016.
“It’s time to end this ineffective and expensive practice and put our efforts behind crime fighting strategies that work,” O’Malley (D) said in a statement.
Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA, a group that is working to end the death penalty, said that Maryland’s action is part of a national trend and that she envisions another half-dozen states adopting the policy in the next several years.
“Just a few years ago, you wouldn’t have had a governor with national ambitions making this a banner issue,” Silberstein said. “It’s no longer the ‘third rail’ of politics. Voters don’t punish people at the polls for being anti-death penalty.”
Wednesday’s debate underscored the internal struggles for many senators.
Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s), a supporter of the bill, cited statistics showing that Maryland has been more likely to impose the death penalty in cases with black assailants and white victims.
“We have a broken system here in Maryland,” he said. “If we can’t fix it, we need to get rid of it.”
Repeal opponents countered that the death penalty can be an important law enforcement tool and should be kept on the books for heinous cases, several of which were recounted in graphic detail during the debate.
“That ultimate punishment still needs to be available,” Sen. Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington) argued to colleagues. “We are talking about crimes against humanity.”
While the death penalty remains on the books in 33 states, many are using it more sparingly than in the past. Last year, 77 people were sentenced to death nationally, the second-lowest number since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), a champion of the repeal legislation in Maryland, said he is confident supporters have the votes to prevail in the House. O’Malley’s bill was introduced in January with 67 House co-sponsors, or four delegates shy of a majority. The bill also has the backing of House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
Maryland voters, however, could have the final say on the issue. If the measure passes, opponents have vowed to make use of a provision in the state’s constitution that allows people to petition recently passed laws to the ballot, as happened with same-sex marriage last year. The outcome of a death penalty referendum would be far from certain.