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Progressive votes in November pave way for death penalty repeal

Senate president opens the door to abolition of capital punishment

Dan Rodricks

3:52 PM EST, January 5, 2013

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That was no small development heard the other day from the longtime president of the Maryland Senate, Thomas V. Mike Miller. The white-haired gatekeeper of the General Assembly said he would allow a vote to repeal the death penalty on the Senate floor, presumably bypassing the committee that usually blocks the legislation from getting there.

This from the politician who once declared: "If there's a gallows, I'll pull the lever. If there's a gas chamber, I'll turn the valve. If it's lethal injection, I'll insert the needle."

Only two years ago, Miller called for the resumption of executions by lethal injection, and apparently he still favors the death penalty for certain kinds of killers. "I strongly believe the death penalty should remain in effect for mass murderers," he told Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser. "I feel strongly that the Hitlers, the Eichmanns, the slavers, these mass murderers, they deserve the ultimate penalty."

Some bizarre references there. It sounds like the Senate president wants to hold the death penalty in reserve for the perpetrators of a hypothetical systematic horror — ethnic cleansing or genocide. I guess I would agree with him and encourage promulgation of such a provision — if I considered such a concern to be rational.

These days the "mass murderers" most Americans are familiar with are the young men who used handguns and assault-style rifles to kill or wound numerous men, women and children — at Blacksburg, Tucson, Aurora, Newtown. And assuming that those who carry out such killings act as they do because of a mental disorder, and assuming they are found mentally incompetent by a court, they would not face the death penalty. Under Maryland law, they would receive a sentence of life without parole.

But I digress.

What's important is that Miller stated publicly that he would allow an up-or-down vote on abolition of the death penalty if Gov. Martin O'Malley could get enough votes for approval ahead of time.

That's how things work in Annapolis — you don't get your bill to the floor unless you've lined up your duckies. "This is not just a debating site where you sit and debate the bills that don't have a chance of passage," said Miller, in one of those been-there-done-that comments we're used to hearing from him.

When you've been around as long as this guy — he went into the General Assembly in 1971 — you get tired and jaded; whatever idealism you had about the legislative process has worn thin as frog's hair, and you just want to avoid contention, get everything over within 90 days and, of course, maintain your power.

Miller, who is 70, announced last week that he was running for re-election to an 11th term, and he said he wants to stay in office until the Chesapeake Bay is cleaned up, which pretty much sounds like President-for-Life.

But I digress.

The important thing is that Miller will allow the Senate vote. So that's an opening for opponents of capital punishment, including the governor.

Abolition of Maryland's death penalty is way past due, and it's time for legislators to take the progressive step and eliminate this barbaric punishment — regardless of fear of voter backlash.

It has been four years, after all, since the Civiletti Commission, comprising supporters and opponents of the death penalty, concluded that it should be abolished.

The state commission found disturbing racial disparities. Since the 1970s, killers of white victims have been 21/2 times more likely to face the death penalty than killers of African-Americans. There are geographic disparities, too, rendering prosecutorial application of the death penalty across the state "irretrievably inconsistent, nonuniform and therefore unfair," the commission found.

And the Maryland death penalty is a waste of taxpayer money. Up through the time of the commission report, in December 2008, 62 of 77 death sentences had been reversed after costly trials and appeals.

"There are other areas in the Maryland criminal justice system where such resources could be applied and significant results could be expected," the commission said.

After that, the General Assembly came close to abolishing capital punishment but left it on the books, with decidedly tough conditions for its application.

Still, this is Maryland, a blue state that just did a couple of smart, progressive things. We approved same-sex marriage and granted in-state college tuition rates for some illegal immigrants. If Annapolis politicians were looking for encouragement to keep moving forward, they got it from November's election, when both of those measures passed handily at referendum. It's time to push ahead and abolish the death penalty now.

Mike Miller, of course, acknowledged that he "was on the wrong side of history" when he voted against same-sex marriage.

While it's foolish to expect him to change his position on the death penalty and get on the right side of history, he's at least willing to get out of the way of it, and for this we are thankful.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com