Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks at a rally in support of repealing the state's death penalty in Annapolis on Jan. 15. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

A majority of Marylanders want to keep the death penalty on the books despite widespread skepticism across the state about whether capital punishment is a deterrent to murder or is applied fairly, a new Washington Post poll has found.

Sixty percent of adults in the poll say that Maryland law should allow for the death penalty, while 36 percent support replacing it with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has made repeal of the death penalty a top priority in the 90-day legislative session. Debate could begin in earnest on the issue later this week in the Senate, where a narrow majority of members are on record supporting O’Malley’s repeal bill. Prospects in the House of Delegates are also considered strong.

Some of the arguments O’Malley is making appear to resonate among Marylanders.

By nearly 2 to 1, those polled say that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder and does not lower the murder rate. And most who respond that way say they feel strongly about their view.

Moreover, nearly one-third of Marylanders — including nearly a half of African Americans — say capital punishment has been applied unfairly in the state. That’s another argument O’Malley has advanced in a state where five men sit on death row but no executions have taken place since 2005.

Yet even when those arguments are stated explicitly, as well as questions that critics have raised about the morality of capital punishment, support for repeal is tepid among the public — which could ultimately decide the issue.

If a repeal bill passes the General Assembly, opponents are expected to take advantage of a provision in the state Constitution that allows citizens to petition new laws to the statewide vote. If enough signatures are collected, the issue would appear on the ballot in November 2014.

Some supporters of the death penalty, like Denise Johnson, say they are not about to budge in their views.

“I believe in an eye for an eye,” said Johnson, 30, an X-ray technician who lives in Baltimore. “If I go out and kill someone, what right do I have to walk around?”

Johnson said she is convinced that the death penalty can be a deterrent to killing in some cases.

“Maybe it makes some people think twice,” she said. “Jail’s not even that bad anymore, from what I hear.”

Marylanders like Johnson, who believe the death penalty is a deterrent, say by an 84 to 13 percent margin that the punishment should be kept on the books as an option. By contrast, large minorities of those who question its fairness or effectiveness in deterring murder nevertheless support having capital punishment as an option for the worst crimes.

Others are more conflicted and open to arguments that capital punishment should be abolished.

Justin Kander, a student majoring in marketing at the University of Maryland at College Park, acknowledged that he’s “a little bit on the fence” when it comes to the death penalty.

Kander said he’s okay with capital punishment for people convicted of “extremely heinous crimes” yet he worries about the state executing an innocent person.

Kander said he considers life without the possibility of parole to be “a pretty acceptable replacement.”

“It’s still an extremely bad punishment, and in some cases, it’s worse than death,” he said.

There are deep divisions over the death penalty based on party affiliation, race, gender and other demographics.

More than half of Democrats oppose capital punishment, while three-quarters of Republicans support it.

About six in 10 men support the death penalty, while women are nearly evenly divided.

Whites support capital punishment by a margin of about 2-to-1 , while a majority of African Americans are opposed. And blacks and whites differ significantly on whether it is imposed fairly.

African American women are a key factor behind racial and gender differences on capital punishment. Six in 10 black women oppose the death penalty, compared with just under half of black men. At least six in white men and women favor it.

The Post poll was conducted Feb. 21-24, among a random sample of 1,156 adult residents of Maryland. The results from the full survey have a margin of error or plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Peyton M. Craighill is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight polling director Jon Cohen and pollster Scott Clement contributed to this report.