ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Martin O’Malley urged lawmakers to repeal the death penalty Wednesday, calling a bill he sponsored “the only and best way forward.”
“It is our time in Maryland for a deeper dialogue on the question of what kind of society we want to be,” he said.
O’Malley testified before the same Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that heard his arguments for a similar bill in 2007. That year, the bill stalled in the committee and never made it to the Senate floor.
O’Malley cited the findings of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which voted 13-9 in favor of repeal, as providing the basis for a different result this time around. He highlighted several findings of the commission, including racial bias, the risk of executing innocent people and the increased costs required to conduct capital cases.
He also dismissed the argument that the death penalty serves as a deterrent, referring to his seven years as mayor of Baltimore.
“In the entire time that the city of Baltimore slipped into becoming one of the most violent and drug-addicted cities in America, the death penalty was on the books and … did absolutely nothing to prevent these awful crimes that plagued a proud and great American city,” O’Malley said.
Several opponents of the bill, including former Gov. Marvin Mandel, cited deterrence as the most important reason to keep the death penalty on the books. Some argued that it was the only way to guarantee that a killer wouldn’t kill again.
Percel Alston Jr., a retired police officer from Prince George’s County who was representing the Maryland State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police, felt that even if the death penalty only deterred one person, it was worth it.
“A deterrent of one is worth saving that one life,” he said.
Jurisdictional differences were also cited during the testimony. Decisions to file capital cases lie in the hands of Maryland’s 24 elected state’s attorneys, who represent a broad range of opinions on capital punishment.
“There ought to be a reasonable uniformity throughout the state and that ought to be the least of the equal justice afforded to the citizens of the state,” said former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, who chaired the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment.
Scott Shellenberger, state’s attorney for Baltimore County and lead author of the minority report of the commission, referred to these jurisdictional disparities as “minority local rule.”
“That is local state’s attorneys enacting the will of the people that they represent,” he said.
Shellenberger said that Maryland had already addressed many of the issues raised by the commission.
“We are more careful,” he said, citing advances in DNA technology and procedures.
Even with O’Malley’s support, the repeal bill faces major hurdles, the first being that the committee has the same members that it did two years ago. No member has indicated a change in position since then.
Without a majority vote from the committee, several options remain. The committee could send the bill to the floor without a recommendation, or the bill could be brought there via a petition, which would require the sponsorship of 16 senators.
Former Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said his time as chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee provided an example that the present committee should follow.
In 1978, Curran, who is now O’Malley’s father-in-law, delivered an unfavorable report on a bill to reinstate the death penalty to the Senate, but allowed a motion to pass that replaced it with the original bill.
“It was done as a courtesy to other people who had different views,” he said.
Curran, who was and still is against the death penalty, argued that it was the right thing to do, despite the fact that it ultimately reinstated the death penalty.
“The right thing to do was to bring it to the floor and let everybody have a say,” he said.
Wednesday morning, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, told senators that the bill shouldn’t be brought to the floor unless there were enough votes to override a filibuster.
“If you’re going to vote that the body has a right to decide this issue, then you’ve got to give them that right to decide the issue,” he said.