Md. Death Penalty Is No Easy Target

Gov. Martin O'Malley is scheduled to appear today before a Senate committee where a repeal bill fell one vote short of approval in 2007.
Gov. Martin O'Malley is scheduled to appear today before a Senate committee where a repeal bill fell one vote short of approval in 2007. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

As he asks lawmakers today to support his bill to repeal Maryland's death penalty, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) will be heading down a road rife with political pitfalls with no clear path toward success.

A majority of Marylanders still support capital punishment. The General Assembly remains bitterly divided over the issue. And O'Malley will be testifying to the same Senate committee that killed similar legislation in each of the past two years.

In an interview, the governor, a Catholic who has long opposed capital punishment, acknowledged the challenges ahead but said he considers himself "hard-wired" to seek a different outcome.

"At the end of the day, the only sure guarantee one has in these honorable jobs of public service is being able to look at yourself in the mirror and know you did your very best, so that's what I'm trying to do," O'Malley said. "I'm really not looking for a medal. I'm not looking for applause. I just believe that it's the right thing to do, and therefore I must try."

Throughout his political career, as mayor of Baltimore and as governor, O'Malley has shown a willingness to gamble. In late 2007, less than a year into office as governor, he summoned lawmakers to Annapolis for a special session on taxes, budget cuts and slot machine gambling without first securing enough votes for any of his initiatives, all of which passed largely intact.

Repealing the death penalty during the current 90-day session might prove the heavier lift, though some of O'Malley's longtime friends said they are not surprised that he is trying.

"When he feels like there's a fundamental injustice, when something strikes him that way, he acts on it," said Michael Drayne, a Silver Spring banker who was a high school classmate of O'Malley's at Gonzaga College High School, a Jesuit-run school in the District. "When he sees issues that way, he's comfortable going with his instincts."

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 regulations allowing executions to resume but has indicated a willingness to do so if his bill is fully considered and defeated this year.

In late 2007, New Jersey became the first state in a generation to abolish the death penalty; others are considering it. The New Mexico House of Delegates voted last week to repeal the death penalty, sending the legislation to the Senate. Fourteen states and the District do not have the death penalty.

In Virginia, lawmakers are considering expanding eligibility for capital punishment to people who assist in murders but do not commit the killings and to people convicted of murdering fire marshals or auxiliary police officers who are on duty. It is unclear whether Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who opposes capital punishment, would sign the bills into law.

O'Malley is scheduled to appear today before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where a senator's repeal bill fell one vote short of approval in 2007. O'Malley testified before the committee that year, too, but this is the first time he is personally sponsoring a bill. The senators on the 11-member committee have not changed in the past two years, and none has announced a switch in position.

If no votes change, pro-repeal lawmakers have been talking about procedural moves that could bring O'Malley's bill to the Senate floor. But those efforts are opposed by the powerful Senate president, and there is no guarantee that a bill would pass the full Senate anyway. A survey published yesterday by the Baltimore Sun suggested that the bill is short of majority support, and a filibuster is considered likely.

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