A Vote Against Cruelty
There's plenty of momentum to repeal the death penalty in Maryland. Are there enough votes?

Friday, February 6, 2009

ONE VOTE. That's all that's stopping the Maryland Senate from taking up a bill that would repeal the death penalty. In recent years, the 11-member Judicial Proceedings Committee has fallen just short of recommending the bill to the full Senate. This year, foes of the death penalty feel that they have the momentum. A respected commission of Maryland leaders concluded last year that the death penalty was costly and flawed. Now, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is putting his political weight behind the repeal, declaring in his recent State of the State address that capital punishment is "outdated, expensive and utterly ineffective." Mr. O'Malley is right. At the very least, a measure this consequential deserves thorough debate and a full vote.

Even some supporters of the death penalty admit that the evidence presented by the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment was compelling. The commission, chaired by former U.S. attorney general Benjamin Civiletti, concluded that capital punishment has little deterrent effect on murder and that the extended legal proceedings may add to the anguish of the victim's family. The commission also found that capital punishment is applied inconsistently across the state and that prosecutors are more likely to pursue a death sentence if the victim is white.

These findings help explain why many states are less reliant on the death penalty. There were 37 executions nationally last year, the lowest total since 1994. The number of defendants sentenced to death also continues to fall. Thirty-six states still allow capital punishment, but death sentences have become an increasingly regional phenomenon, limited mostly to the South. Many states are considering a repeal of the death penalty and are looking to Maryland as a bellwether. As Time magazine noted, "Now the focus is on Maryland."

If the committee remains deadlocked -- possible swing votes include Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County), Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick) and Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) -- the Senate may use procedural loopholes to bring the bill to the floor. One option has the committee passing on the measure "without recommendation"; another has at least 16 senators signing a petition to bring the bill to the floor. Neither measure has been used in recent memory, and for good reason. Circumventing the committee process would set a dangerous precedent. Committees kill bad bills and keep the legislative docket from becoming too full. If the Senate tramples on procedure to bring the measure to the floor, every legislator with a pet project may clamor to do the same.

In his State of the State address, Mr. O'Malley said, "I ask that you give this important moral question of repeal of the death penalty a fair up-or-down vote in both houses of this legislature." Reasonable people can disagree on the death penalty, but we don't think that putting it to a vote is too much to ask.

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