Death Penalty Bears Down on O'Malley, Kaine

By John Wagner and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 10, 2007

The governors of Maryland and Virginia have much in common: Both Martin O'Malley and Timothy M. Kaine are considered rising stars in the Democratic Party. Both grappled with violent crime as big-city mayors and have wives who have served as judges. And both are practicing Catholics who have voiced personal opposition to the death penalty.

Now they share something else: Both face decisions on that divisive issue that will be watched closely in their states and beyond.

O'Malley, who was sworn in last month, has pledged to work with lawmakers to repeal Maryland's death penalty -- and could effectively halt executions through the end of his tenure even without their support, given a recent court ruling.

Kaine, who was sworn in last year, presides over a state where executions are far more frequent. He soon could have to decide whether to sign bills to expand capital punishment in Virginia.

With Maryland lawmakers preparing to debate the death penalty in coming weeks, O'Malley said in an interview yesterday that his office has started researching the amount of money that the state has spent prosecuting such cases.

"I think the facts are on the side of those who say this is neither a deterrent nor is it cost-effective and in fact we may be wasting dollars that could be spent saving lives," O'Malley said.

Kaine, who has allowed four executions to proceed, would not say in a recent interview what he would do when the anticipated legislation reaches his desk, but he allowed that he does "not look at the expansion of the death penalty with a favorable eye."

"I would not say the problem in Virginia is that the death penalty is not applied enough," Kaine said.

The posture on both sides of the Potomac River -- and the openness of the governors on the issue -- is testament to the changing politics of the death penalty, analysts say.

"It wasn't long ago that if you were a Democrat and against the death penalty, you'd run a hundred miles from it," said Steve Jarding, a party strategist who gained prominence running Mark Warner's successful 2001 bid for Virginia governor. "It's still a polarizing issue, and you never want the polarizing issues to be the dominant ones. But the climate really has changed."

Although polls show that a majority of Americans support capital punishment, there is also evidence of growing unease about executions. That may make O'Malley's and Kaine's views less of a political liability than they would have been in years past.

Nationally, the number of death sentences dropped last year to the lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court 30 years ago. Of the 38 states that allow capital punishment, only 14 carried it out last year.

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