Friday, February 27, 2009

Maryland's Death Penalty in its Final Throes

For those who haven't been following the death penalty situation in Maryland, it's a little complicated when you go into all the political players and dynamics, but the basic story is that the catholic, Democratic Mayor of Baltimore turned governor, Martin O'Malley, has decided to make repeal a key part of his legacy at a time where repeal is likely to enter the agenda of several states for cost-cutting reasons alone. Yet despite the strong support of the governor, the opposition to repeal, particularly in the state senate, is formidable. Yesterday the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted 5-5 on the death penalty repeal bill. It is only be special rules that the bill will go to the floor.

This is good news. It is what Gov. O'Malley and other leading death penalty opponents in the state have wanted all along. Nonetheless, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a firm supporter of capital punishment, appears confident that the measure will fail to escape filibuster by a handful of votes and will never get to the House of Delegates, which will likely vote in favor. Activists like myself, mostly working under Maryland Citizens Against State Executions (MDCASE) have sent numerous letters to our representatives calling for repeal. We've also written letters to our local newspapers, challenging the misconceptions of many death penalty supporters that it is safe because it is not used often (five executions since the end of the moratorium in the 1970s) and that the death penalty must be maintained as the only punishment to lifers who murder prison guards or fellow inmates. We will know soon the fruits of our efforts.

But even if it fails this session due to the stubbornness of the old guard in the senate, I have no doubt that Maryland's death penalty is in its final throes, and this will resonate throughout the country, following the 2007 New Jersey example. Back in 2005, when O'Malley was campaigning for the governorship, I slipped inside his entourage and asked him what he would do about the death penalty if elected. He said that while he was personally opposed to it, he would uphold the law. Thanks to the de facto moratorium imposed by faulty lethal injection procedures, the governor has not been put in the position to "uphold the law," or appease the bloodthirsty, over his own sensibilities. I think he has shifted to the point where this dichotomy is no longer relevant, but even if he hasn't, the conditions for eliminating it are almost perfect. The time is at hand. The old guard will go along or be left behind.

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