By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said yesterday that he will for the first time personally sponsor a bill and do "everything in [his] power" to abolish capital punishment in Maryland, signaling his desire to make the issue a chief accomplishment as he enters the second half of his term.
O'Malley said in an interview that he plans to invest heavy political capital to persuade the General Assembly to pass a repeal bill during its current 90-day legislation session, even asking lawmakers to work around a Senate committee that has kept such a bill from passing before if necessary.
During his first two years, the governor has established a track record of muscling through difficult legislation, including a bill setting up a public vote on slot-machine gambling and a package of tax increases and spending cuts. But his promised introduction of a death-penalty repeal bill will face strong opposition, probably leading to a major political battle.
O'Malley said the death penalty is not a deterrent, wastes resources that could be better spent fighting violent crime and leaves the state open to the possibility of executing innocent people. "That risk alone should be enough to repeal it and substitute it with life without parole," he said.
The governor's stepped-up effort comes at a time when other states have been rethinking the merits of the death penalty and with Maryland at a crossroads on the issue. A state commission led by former U.S. attorney general Benjamin R. Civiletti recently recommended abolition, but local prosecutors who support capital punishment have urged O'Malley to issue the regulations needed to end a court-imposed moratorium on executions.
The 37 executions that took place nationally last year marked a 14-year low and continued a downward trend after peaking in 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In late 2007, New Jersey became the first state in a generation to abolish the death penalty; others are considering it.
"I'm going to lobby people on the merits of the issue," said O'Malley, a Catholic who has long opposed the death penalty. "I just feel personally compelled to try."
After a meeting with O'Malley yesterday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), a capital punishment supporter, said he would continue to talk with the governor but said changing votes will be tough.
"When you're middle-aged, your mind is pretty much set on issues like this," Miller said. "It's not an issue you can lobby. He's going to push hard, but I'm not sure he's going to be successful."
It is unclear how many minds O'Malley would need to change, because repeal bills have not been debated by the full House or Senate in recent years. Death penalty opponents claim that a majority in both chambers support repeal, although the bill could face a filibuster in the Senate, further complicating passage.
Maryland has executed five people since it reinstated the death penalty in 1978. Five inmates are on death row.
The state has had a de facto moratorium on capital punishment since December 2006, the month before O'Malley took office, after the state's highest court ruled that procedures for lethal injection had not been properly adopted. O'Malley has declined to issue new regulations allowing executions to resume.
O'Malley indicated yesterday that he would like to see votes on a repeal bill by the full House and Senate before allowing regulations to be put in place. He said he is hopeful that the Senate committee would approve the bill during the session that started this week, sending it to the floor for a vote by the full chamber. But the membership of the 11-member committee has not changed since 2007, when a repeal bill fell one vote short, despite testimony by O'Malley urging its passage.
Last year, the committee declined to vote on a similar bill, given the likelihood of the same result.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), the committee's chairman, said yesterday that he was not aware of any votes that have changed but that it is possible O'Malley's imprint on the bill could make a difference.
"There's a little more force behind it," said Frosh, who supports repealing the death penalty.
If the bill remains stalled in committee, O'Malley suggested that the chamber consider using one of several parliamentary procedures that could allow the proposal to move to the floor without committee approval.
Those moves are very rare, although O'Malley said one was used when the Senate reinstated the death penalty in Maryland. At the time, O'Malley's father-in-law, J. Joseph Curran (D), a death penalty opponent, was chairman of the committee that was bypassed. He later served as Maryland's attorney general.
Miller said he urged O'Malley during their meeting to work within the committee system. In a recent interview, Miller said bypassing the committee "would mean turmoil on the floor."
The House of Delegates has not taken any votes on repealing the death penalty in the past two years while the bill has been stalled in the Senate. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said in a recent interview that he believes there are enough votes to pass a repeal bill in his chamber but that he would like the Senate to act first.
In yesterday's interview, O'Malley cited the General Assembly's decision to let voters decide last November whether to authorize slot-machine gambling in Maryland, ending years of legislative paralysis on the issue.
"If that had enough moral gravity attached to it to do that, certainly the repeal of the death penalty has enough moral gravity attached to be considered by the full House and Senate," O'Malley said.