Petition drive to halt Maryland’s death penalty repeal falls short


The execution table inside the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore is seen in 2004. (Steve Ruark/AP)

The law repealing Maryland’s death penalty will take effect as scheduled on Oct. 1 after opponents failed to collect enough signatures to put the issue to a statewide vote.

MDPetitions.com, the group that helped put same-sex marriage and two other issues on last year’s ballot, confirmed at a Friday afternoon news conference that it was unable to replicate its success. Facing a midnight deadline to submit an initial batch of signatures, the group instead ended its effort.

“There’s just not a natural constituency to go to,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger (D), a supporter of the death penalty who worked with the group, in explaining the difficulty.

Meanwhile, Free State Petitions, a separate group trying to halt Maryland’s new gun-control law, remained mum about its progress as the deadline approached.

Both groups were trying to put new laws championed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) on hold pending a November 2014 vote. To comply with a constitutional requirement, petition-gatherers were scrambling to present the first third of a required 55,736 signatures to the state on Friday. If that threshold were crossed, the remainder would be due a month later.

With its new repeal law, Maryland becomes the sixth state in as many years to abolish capital punishment. The legislation was a priority this year for the NAACP and the Catholic Church.

Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said she was not surprised that the petition drive fell short.

“My gut had told me it was going to be a real challenge,” Henderson said. “People are comfortable with this.”

She added that she is happy to avoid a drawn-out campaign over the issue. “I’m really looking forward to doing something else for the next 18 months,” Henderson said.

MDPetitions.com was the same group that spearheaded successful petition drives that resulted in three measures on Maryland’s ballot last year: same-sex marriage, in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and congressional redistricting.

Aided by Internet technology that made gathering signatures easier, some Republicans touted the successful efforts as a new check on the Democrat-led legislature. But voters upheld all three measures in November.

Shellenberger said the outcome at the ballot box probably made petition-gathering more difficult this year, particularly in recruiting volunteers.

“I think people realized that just the signatures isn’t enough,” he said.

Shellenberger said MDPetitions.com collected more than 15,000 signatures on the death penalty repeal, shy of the 18,579 required for the drive to continue. Given that many signatures are typically disallowed, the group, which is led by Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington), had a goal of turning in at least 23,000, he said.

The new gun-control law signed by O’Malley bans assault weapons and limits magazines to no more than 10 bullets. Residents buying a gun are required to give fingerprints and obtain a photo ID similar to a driver’s license. They also have to spend eight hours in a gun-safety training class.

Some pro-gun groups decided not to participate in the petition drive, arguing that legal action is a better course for overturning the law.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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