The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The most recent state to abolish the death penalty is about to empty its death row

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley before he signed the bill abolishing capital punishment in the state last year. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

As the death penalty continued to decline in 2014, it is worth noting that for the first time in four years, no state in the country actually banned the practice outright. But Maryland, the most recent state to abolish capital punishment, ended the year by doing something interesting: It moved to empty its death row once and for all.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who is about to leave office, announced Wednesday that he plans to commute the sentences of the state’s four remaining death-row inmates. As my colleague John Wagner explains, this comes two years after the state legislature (at O’Malley’s urging) banned the death penalty:

Maryland’s repeal of capital punishment did not apply to prisoners already on death row. There were five such prisoners when the legislation took effect; one has since died of natural causes.
Death-penalty opponents have urged O’Malley to commute the remaining prisoners’ sentences, while family members of some of their victims said they opposed such a move.

In announcing his decision Wednesday, O’Malley cited an opinion from the state’s attorney general saying that the state cannot execute the remaining inmates because the state no longer has regulations governing lethal injection. The situation in Maryland was unusual but not unprecedented. Connecticut in 2012 and New Mexico in 2009 both outlawed the death penalty but did not apply the change to people already on death row. O’Malley’s announcement Wednesday ended the odd legal limbo that had remained in his state after the repeal, a situation that persists elsewhere; a Connecticut man was sentenced to death earlier this year because his crime had been committed before the state outlawed the death penalty, something defense attorneys argued was unconstitutional.

Maryland’s decision to abolish the death penalty last year capped off a rather remarkable surge in states getting rid of the practice. Six of the states to ban the death penalty did so between 2007 and 2013, the same number of states that got rid of capital punishment during the preceding five decades, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Even though no states formally banned the death penalty in 2014, there was still movement against the practice in some state capitals. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced that he was imposing a moratorium on executions while he remained in office. In New Hampshire, the state came very close to banning capital punishment, but the repeal failed by a single vote. Meanwhile, a federal judge in California called that state’s death penalty system unconstitutional, owing to “inordinate and unpredictable” delays.

In any event, the death penalty was used less nationwide this year, with fewer states executing inmates, fewer executions and fewer people being sentenced to death. Four out of five executions were carried out by just three states — Texas, Missouri and Florida — while 43 states, Maryland among them, did not carry out any executions at all.

Related: Everything you need to know about executions in the United States