Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to sign a law abolishing capital punishment in Maryland next week, though a referendum effort may be on the horizon.
O'Malley's spokesman Raquel Guillory confirmed Thursday that the death penalty repeal law is scheduled to be signed on May 2. Maryland will become the sixth state in as many years to abandon state executions.
Five men, all convicted of murders dating back to 1983, are on death row. O'Malley, who pushed for repeal, has said the men's fates will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Maryland has had a de facto moratorium on executions since a 2006 court ruling overturned details in the process for carrying them out. The last execution in Maryland occurred by lethal injection in 2005.
After hours of impassioned debate in the General Assembly earlier this year, lawmakers voted 109-76 for repeal. Seventeen other states have outlawed the death penalty, but Maryland is the first south of the Mason Dixon line to do so.
Repeal opponents have threatened to send the issue before voters. The group mdpetitions.com, which organized three ballot drives over the past two years, has submitted possible petition language to the Maryland Board of Elections for approval.
The group had also submitted language to petition a controversial new gun law, but later decided against mounting that effort. The group's founder, Republican Del. Neil Parrott of Western Maryland, has not announced whether mdpetitions.com will pursue any referendums.
Parrott said Thursday night that time is running short and the group will make a decision within the next week. To successfully put the issue on the November 2014 ballot, opponents must collect a total of 55,736 valid signatures by the end of June. More than 18,000 of them must be submitted to election officials by May 31.
A January poll by Annapolis-based OpinionWorks found showed Maryland voters closely divided on death penalty repeal with 42 percent supporting repeal and 48 percent opposing. Other polls found that a majority of voters consider life without parole as an acceptable alternative.
Without the death penalty, life without parole would be the harshest sentence on Maryland's books.