Md. Death Penalty May Come To Fore

By John Wagner and Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 24, 2006

The emotionally charged, polarizing issue of the death penalty was barely mentioned during the campaign for Maryland governor. And it hardly seemed something that Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley would be eager to wade into during his first months in office, when he plans to focus on "the things we agree on."

Yet the confluence of national currents and a Maryland court ruling last week halting executions on a technicality could make the death penalty a defining issue of O'Malley's tenure.

In effect, Maryland suddenly has a moratorium on executions, and the new governor, who is personally opposed to capital punishment, could play a pivotal role in determining when -- and whether -- it resumes.

"I think the chances of someone being executed on O'Malley's watch decrease very significantly as a result of the court's opinion," said Timothy Maloney, a lawyer and former Prince George's County delegate.

That's due largely to a broad shift in dynamics that has sprung from a narrow ruling.

Before last week, halting executions in Maryland would have required legislation from a General Assembly that in recent years has shown a waning appetite to take up the issue. Despite his personal beliefs, O'Malley seemed unlikely to champion a messy cause that could crowd out his early priorities.

Now, however, executions are not likely to resume without action from his administration. Under the ruling by the Court of Appeals, new regulations must be drafted before the state may put more prisoners to death -- and early signs from O'Malley and his aides suggest that he sees no reason to rush that process.

Given new questions about lethal injection that have arisen in California, Florida and other states, O'Malley could also seize the opportunity for a broader discussion about the wisdom of the death penalty, lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the issue say.

The night of the ruling, O'Malley said he was certain that "all of this will spark a renewed debate as to whether all of the money we spend prosecuting death penalty cases might be better spent fighting violent crime and saving lives."

O'Malley has said little since to suggest what form that debate should take. But it would be well within Annapolis tradition to appoint a commission to study the issue, pushing off any possibility of an execution in the state.

Michael Paranzino, the head of Throw Away the Key, a Kensington-based nonprofit organization that supports capital punishment, said he expects that O'Malley will welcome the opportunity to effectively impose a moratorium on the death penalty.

By doing little or nothing, Paranzino said, O'Malley and other death penalty opponents might accomplish their goal without paying the political price that a strong stand could entail. There appears to be no recent polling done on the issue in Maryland, but 53 percent of voters supported the death penalty in a 2004 poll conducted for the Baltimore Sun.

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