Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is reaching out to relatives of the victims of the state’s four death-row inmates, stirring speculation that he might commute their sentences in the twilight of his tenure, after more than a year of resisting calls to do so.
The state legislature repealed capital punishment in early 2013, at O’Malley’s urging, but that action did not directly affect prisoners who were already on death row, in a kind of legal limbo. Maryland’s highest court had halted executions years earlier, ruling that the state’s regulations for lethal injection were invalid and would have to be rewritten. The O’Malley administration never adopted new regulations.
O’Malley (D), a practicing Catholic, said capital punishment conflicted with “our values as a people.” But after the legislature eliminated the penalty, he did not heed pressure from advocates to commute the sentences of the existing death-row inmates to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Commuting the men’s sentences would remove any remaining uncertainty about their fate, death-penalty opponents say, and make a further statement against capital punishment.
“This is a very positive sign,” Jane Henderson, a board member of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said Friday. “Why would he be reaching out to them if he wasn’t going to do anything? I applaud the governor for taking this step.”
O’Malley’s critics, however, denounced him on two fronts. Some said he is using his last days in office to score points with liberals as he weighs a presidential bid. Others suggested O’Malley was spurred to act by the election this month of a successor — Republican Larry Hogan — who supports the death penalty.
“There’s no doubt in my mind this is politics,” said Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr. (R-Baltimore County), a member of the House Judiciary Committee and a retired police officer.
Mary Francis Moore, who lives in Boonsboro in Washington County, said she is scheduled to talk to O’Malley by phone Monday about Heath Burch, who in 1995 killed her father and his wife in their Capitol Heights home with a pair of scissors. At the time of the murders, Burch, a habitual drug user, was high on crack cocaine.
“I’m trying to be able to put my things together that I want to say to the governor,” Moore, 71, said Friday, adding that she expected the conversation to be difficult.
The Baltimore Sun, which first reported O’Malley’s outreach, said the governor’s office also contacted Dorothy Atkinson of Salisbury on the Eastern Shore. Atkinson’s son was murdered in 1997 by death-row inmate Jody Lee Miles in Wicomico County. Atkinson, who could not be reached Friday, told the Sun that she was angry her case had dragged on for so long but that she welcomed a meeting with O’Malley.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger (D) said O’Malley’s office asked him for help finding find relatives of two people murdered in his jurisdiction in a 1983 contract killing. Shellenberger said he was not aware of any surviving family members.
“In light of the fact that the governor’s term is about to end, I can only surmise that he is looking to take some sort of action,” Shellenberger said.
O’Malley’s office declined to comment.
It is unlikely that Burch, Miles and the other men who remain on Maryland’s death row — Vernon Evans and Anthony Grandison — could be executed, whether O’Malley commutes their sentences or not.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) issued a legal opinion this month that said the state does not have the legal authority to execute the inmates. Gansler wrote that it is a “legal and factual impossibility” to kill the prisoners without regulations in place. Since the death penalty is no longer on the books, the state cannot develop new regulations to replace the ones that were ruled invalid in 2006, Gansler’s opinion said. Gansler, who leaves office in January, said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), the incoming attorney general, holds the same view and had signed off on the opinion.
Shellenberger, a death-penalty supporter, disagreed with Gansler, arguing that a new administration could offer new regulations for execution. But his view is not widely held.
Henderson, the activist who opposes the death penalty, said she thinks the death-row inmates will eventually have their sentences altered in court. But, she said, O’Malley’s action could speed up that process.
“With the stroke of the pen, it can be done,” Henderson said. “And no one will have to go to court again.”
Hogan, who takes office Jan. 21, has said he would review the inmates’ fate on a case-by-case basis. Although he personally supports the death penalty, Hogan has also said he does not plan to ask the legislature to reinstate the punishment. Hogan spokeswoman Erin Montgomery declined to comment Friday.
One death-penalty supporter in the legislature, Del. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick), said he was not bothered by O’Malley’s timing. “Since he pushed the repeal, he should go ahead and take care of this and not leave it on the plate for Governor Hogan,” Hough said.
Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County), also a death penalty supporter, said O’Malley should take into account the views of the victims’ families before reaching any conclusions about commutations.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), a longtime repeal advocate, said he was heartened by word of O’Malley’s outreach. “It properly informs his decisions,” said Rosenberg, who said he would like to see the governor commute all four sentences.