Gov. Martin O'Malley urged Maryland lawmakers yesterday to repeal the state's death penalty, saying the punishment is "inherently unjust," does not serve as a deterrent to murder and saps resources that could be better spent on law enforcement.
Stepping forcefully into a debate taking place in Annapolis and across the nation, O'Malley (D) suggested that Maryland and other states will inevitably execute innocent people. Maryland has put to death five people since 1978.
"Can the death penalty ever be justified as public policy when it inherently necessitates the occasional taking of a wrongly convicted, innocent life?" O'Malley said during the first of two appearances yesterday before legislative committees. "Is any of us willing to sacrifice a member of our own family . . . in order to secure the execution of five rightly convicted murderers?"
O'Malley's testimony, captured by more than a dozen television cameras in a packed Senate hearing room, opened a long afternoon of debate over legislation that would replace Maryland's death penalty with life in prison without parole.
The issue, one of the most divisive facing the General Assembly this year, drew pleas from people on both sides of the issue during separate hearings conducted by House and Senate panels. But far more people turned out to support repeal, with nearly 30 people signing up to testify in favor of the bill in the Senate.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger (D), one of a handful of capital punishment supporters who appeared, told the panel that it was unnecessary to repeal the death penalty because so few executions are carried out in Maryland. There are six prisoners on the state's death row.
"Why repeal a statute that prosecutors need to use when you have all the checks and balances in place?" he said. "You can't look at the death penalty in a vacuum. It's merely a justifiable homicide in order to protect others."
The issue gained attention in Maryland in December with a court ruling that effectively halted executions until the state issues new regulations on lethal injection. O'Malley has declined to say whether his administration will issue those regulations if the death penalty is not repealed during the 90-day legislative session.
Even some supporters of repeal acknowledged they have an uphill battle, particularly in the Senate, where the legislation could face a filibuster if it reaches the floor.
Some of the most emotional testimony yesterday came from Kirk Bloodsworth of Dorchester County, who served eight years in prison, two of them on death row, for rape and murder charges that were later dismissed based on DNA evidence.
Bloodsworth told the Senate panel that the state should not "have blood on its hands" for one innocent man who might be wrongly convicted.
"The bottom line is simple: If it can happen to an honorably discharged Marine Corps veteran, it can happen to anybody," Bloodsworth said, his voice cracking and tears running down his face.
Others testifying in favor of a repeal included Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) and former attorney general J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D), who is O'Malley's father-in-law.
Among those testifying against repeal was Phyllis Bricker of Baltimore, whose mother and father were murdered in their Baltimore home in 1983.
Bricker said her parents' killer, John Booth, is one of the six men who sit on death row. "Three separate juries . . . sentenced this man to death," Bricker told the House committee. "Now you, the senators and delegates, have been asked to act as judge and jury . . . without ever having heard one word of courtroom testimony."
Sitting governors rarely testify on legislation that is not part of a formal administration legislative package. And O'Malley, who was sworn in last month, had urged lawmakers to focus this session on issues on which there is broad consensus.
O'Malley, a Catholic whose forehead bore ashes from an Ash Wednesday Mass, suggested that the death penalty is an affront to "individual human dignity," which he called "the universal truth that is the basis of human ethics." But most of his testimony focused on pragmatic arguments about the cost and effectiveness of capital punishment.
He said that since 1990, the murder rate had declined by 56 percent in states without the death penalty but by only 38 percent in states that impose it.
"It would appear that the death penalty is not a deterrent, but very possibly an accelerant, to murder," O'Malley said.
He also cited estimates of the costs of prosecuting death penalty cases, suggesting Maryland could have saved $22.4 million since the death penalty resumed in 1978 if it did not impose the ultimate punishment. Maryland has put to death five people since 1978 and freed one inmate from death row.
"That $22.4 million could pay for 500 additional police officers or provide drug treatment for 10,000 of our neighbors suffering from drug addiction," O'Malley said. "Unlike the death penalty, these are investments that save lives and prevent violent crime."
Death penalty opponents have been lobbying lawmakers for weeks. Bloodsworth and others who have been exonerated after facing the death penalty have met with legislators to tell their stories. Maryland Citizens Against State Executions has led the effort, joined by the Catholic Conference and other religious organizations.
Before the hearing, supporters of repeal had a news conference with seven men who have served time on death row in various states and been exonerated.
As the House hearing got underway, Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), sponsor of the repeal bill, said lawmakers would "not cast a more important vote during our career as public servants." The death penalty, he said, "cannot be made right in this state or any other state."