Ehrlich takes issue with O'Malley's delays on death penalty

By John Wagner
Washington Post staff writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has repeatedly fallen short in his attempts to persuade lawmakers to abolish capital punishment. But as he nears the end of his term, O'Malley is close to achieving through delay and inertia what he could not change in the law.

Three-and-a-half years after the state's highest court halted use of the death penalty on a technicality, O'Malley has yet to implement regulations required for executions to resume. Although O'Malley says his administration is working diligently in that direction, advocates on both sides of the issue say they strongly doubt that any of Maryland's five condemned prisoners will be put to death before the governor stands for reelection this fall.

With jobs and the economy dominating the political debate, there is little evidence that O'Malley's posture on the death penalty has hurt him politically to this point. But his leading opponent, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), said that he plans to make it an issue, accusing O'Malley and other death penalty opponents of "shenanigans" to avoid carrying out the law.

"This is the kind of thing that makes people cynical about the criminal justice system," said Ehrlich, who presided over the state's last execution, in 2005. "Governor O'Malley took an oath to uphold the law. He's certainly violating the spirit of it."

The debate in Maryland, one of 35 states with a death penalty statute, comes as capital punishment continues to draw attention across the country. Executions nationwide increased somewhat last year, but the number of new death sentences handed down fell to the lowest total since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

O'Malley bristled at Ehrlich's characterization, attributing part of the delay to a legislative review committee that six months ago raised numerous questions about regulations drafted by the administration, including its choice of a three-drug cocktail for lethal injections. Administration officials said a formal response was mailed to the committee Friday morning.

"We are following the process for putting the new regulations in place," O'Malley said. "Everything about the death penalty is cumbersome and can be slow."

Ehrlich's emphasis could help shore up support among conservative Democrats, a key constituency that he courted far more successfully in his 2002 victory than his 2006 defeat. Although O'Malley's stance puts him at odds with many of those voters, his advisers say that some will appreciate the governor's conviction on the issue, even if they disagree with him.

O'Malley, who rose to political prominence as a tough-on-crime mayor of Baltimore, said he has a strong record on public safety as governor, including a sharp decrease in violent crime statewide. On Tuesday, he signed bills toughening restrictions on sex offenders and giving law enforcement new tools to monitor gangs.

"He may define public safety success by how many people are executed," O'Malley said of Ehrlich. "I define it by how many lives we save."

In December 2006, during Ehrlich's last full month in office, Maryland's highest court ruled that the state's death penalty procedures had not been properly adopted, halting executions until new regulations were issued by the administration.

Focus on repeal

O'Malley focused instead on lobbying the legislature to repeal the death penalty. In high-profile testimony shortly after he took office in 2007, the governor, a Catholic, argued that capital punishment is "inherently unjust," does not serve as a deterrent to murder and consumes resources that could be better used preventing crime.

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