Repeal of Md. Death Penalty Still Seems Out of Reach

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Advocates of repealing Maryland's death penalty are hopeful that New Jersey's landmark decision to end capital punishment will provide momentum heading into next month's legislative session. But interviews with key lawmakers suggest that a permanent repeal during the 90-day session remains a long shot.

A bid to replace Maryland's death penalty with life without parole failed by a single vote in a Senate committee during the last regular session, which ended in April, despite high-profile support from Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). In testimony before the legislature, O'Malley argued that capital punishment is "inherently unjust" and that money is wasted on appeals that could be better spent fighting violent crime.

In the months since then, repeal advocates have arranged meetings between lawmakers and well-known death penalty opponents, including David Kaczynski, brother of Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber. They have hired as a lobbyist the former chief of staff to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). They are planning several events to spotlight the issue after lawmakers return to Annapolis on Jan. 9, including a visit by suspense novelist Scott Turow, a death penalty opponent.

And they are urging opponents of capital punishment to write lawmakers, pointing out similarities between Maryland and New Jersey, which this month became the first state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty.

There is little evidence, however, that any of their efforts have changed minds on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which killed the repeal bill last session and whose 11 members remain the same.

"The burden of proof on changing the law is on those who want the law changed, and I've not yet been convinced to vote for a full repeal," said Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick), who was considered the swing vote on the committee last session. Mooney, a Catholic, has said he is conflicted about the issue.

Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said she remains optimistic about repeal prospects during the coming session, however.

"There's movement," Henderson said. "There are people leaning our way who may not say so before session. . . . We're going to continue to push. It's no longer a question of 'if' in Maryland. It's a question of 'when.' "

The legislative debate will take place against uncertain backdrops in Maryland and nationally.

Maryland has had an effective moratorium on capital punishment since last December, when the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled that the state's procedures for lethal injections had not been properly adopted. Five prisoners currently sit on Maryland's death row.

For executions to resume, the O'Malley administration must issue new regulations -- a step the governor has resisted. If the legislature tries to abolish the death penalty and fails for a second year in a row, pressure will mount on O'Malley to issue the rules, some lawmakers said. Miller, who supports the death penalty, said O'Malley should have done so already.

"When he took the oath of office, he swore to uphold the laws of Maryland, and the law of Maryland is now being subverted," Miller said.

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