ANNAPOLIS – Maryland is just one signature away from ending all state executions after the House of Delegates voted 82-56 in favor of repealing the death penalty Friday.
The Senate voted to repeal the death penalty last week.
“This is a historic decision today in Maryland,” said Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Today, Maryland joins 17 other states and every other country in the Western World,” in abolishing the death penalty, Jealous said.
Jealous said the NAACP is working to end capital punishment in Colorado and Delaware next. Connecticut was the most recent state to repeal the death penalty.
“There’s no such thing as a spare American,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley, at a press conference after the vote. “Every life is important.”
Friday’s vote gave the governor his second victory on a high-profile piece of legislation this month. Last week, the governor’s offshore wind energy bill passed the Senate and is headed to his desk for a signature.
The death penalty repeal law encourages the governor to commute or change the sentences of the five inmates currently on death row to sentences of life without the possibility of parole.
Proponents of the repeal argue for life without parole because it would save money by removing years of appeals.
“Life without the possibility of parole is a very severe punishment,” said Delegate Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, who shepherded the bill through the House.
After the House adjourned, Rosenberg said that many in Annapolis had predicted an 82-59 vote, but that three delegates — Don Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel, Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, and LeRoy Myers Jr., R-Washington — were absent Friday.
All three were expected to vote against the repeal.
House Republican Michael McDermott of Wicomico County, one of the most vocal opponents of the repeal, said the bill was “wrong spirited” and will not solve problems in the future.
“It’s a shame we will not allow future generations the option to put to death the worst of the worst,” said McDermott.
During the debates, about 50 to 60 delegates regularly supported the amendments to keep the death penalty in certain aggravating cases, but were overpowered by a bloc of about 80 who consistently supported the repeal.
The aggravating cases included mass murders, acts of terror and killing police officers in the line of duty. All of the amendments failed.
The death penalty has not been applied in Maryland since 2005, when Wesley Eugene Baker was executed for robbing and fatally shooting Jane Tyson in a Catonsville mall parking lot in June 1991.
The General Assembly passed the state’s current law in 2009. The law restricts the death penalty to cases where DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or video evidence of the crime are available.
The strict law was designed to reduce the chance of executing an innocent person, which is one of the reasons many delegates cited for voting for the repeal.
Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, voted in favor of the bill, but said he is not completely opposed to the death penalty. He said he was comfortable with it only if the state ensured those put to death were truly the criminals guilty of the most egregious crimes, but acknowledged that the system is not error-proof.
“What I am opposed to and can no longer live with,” Simmons said, “is using the death penalty to accidentally put to death an innocent man or woman.”
Many senators and delegates who supported the repeal said the system was flawed, and used the case of Kirk Bloodsworth as an example.
Bloodsworth was falsely accused and sentenced to death for brutally murdering a 9-year-old girl in 1984. He was later found innocent thanks to DNA evidence.
“Whether it’s DNA, or false confessions, you can find out later far into the process that someone who has been sentenced to death did not commit the crime,” Rosenberg said, during a heated debate Wednesday night.
Bloodsworth was regularly present for the debates on the repeal.
Also in the gallery Friday were Maryland residents Vicki and Sylvester Schieber — parents of 23-year-old Shannon Schieber, who was raped and murdered in Pennsylvania in 1998 — and Bonnita Spikes, whose husband, Michael Spikes, was murdered in 1994.
“I’m very happy and I know my husband would have been happy,” said Spikes, after the votes were tallied.
“I’m very proud to be a Marylander today,” Spikes said.
Once signed, the bill will go into effect Oct. 1.
Capital News Service’s Lucas High contributed to this report.