Surrounded by religious leaders, civil rights activists and others who have fought for years to stop executions in Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation Thursday repealing the state's death penalty.
Unless the law is overturned in a referendum, Maryland will become the 18th state to end capital punishment, leaving life without parole as the maximum penalty for any crime.
"We have a responsibility to stop doing those things that are wasteful and ineffective," O'Malley, a Democrat, said before putting pen to paper.
The bill, which passed both houses of the General Assembly with votes to spare in March, fulfills a goal O'Malley set early in his administration.
Death penalty repeal was one of more than 200 bills the governor signed Thursday. Among them were measures legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes and allowing people in the country illegally to obtain a state driver's license.
But it was the abolition of the death penalty after more than 300 years on the books in Maryland that took center stage. Hundreds of repeal supporters lined up to have their pictures taken with O'Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. It took six photos — each with dozens of advocates — to accommodate all who wanted their moment in state history.
The first two ceremonial pens went to Sen. Lisa A. Gladden and Del. Sandy Rosenberg, Baltimore Democrats who have long pushed to end capital punishment. The third pen went to NAACP President Ben Jealous, who had urged O'Malley to try again for repeal this year after falling short in 2009.
Gladden, the Senate's leading repeal proponent since 2003, said she was "trying not to cry."
"I want to savor the moment," she said.
Rosenberg, the lead House sponsor since 2007, called the signing a significant accomplishment for Maryland. "It was time we all put an end to this unethical, racially discriminatory, wasteful process," he said. "The time and effort that goes into this issue can now go into other criminal justice issues."
Jealous, who helped round up enough votes in the Senate to persuade O'Malley to move forward this year, noted that most of the world's advanced nations have stopped executions.
"This is the day we join the rest of Western civilization by abolishing the death penalty," he said. Since the General Assembly's passage of the bill in March, Jealous said, the campaign to repeal capital punishment has gained momentum in Delaware, Colorado, New Hampshire and other states.
Kirk Bloodsworth, the former Eastern Shore waterman who was convicted of the murder of a 9-year-old girl in Baltimore County but later exonerated by DNA evidence, said he'd been waiting 28 years to witness such a signing.
"Twenty-eight years ago I was sitting in a death row cell, and it became clear to me we could execute an innocent man," he said. "No innocent person will ever be executed in this state ever again."
Del. Michael Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican who attended the bill signing, said he shook Bloodsworth's hand as one ex-Marine to another. But Smigiel, who voted against repeal, said he remains concerned about cases such as the killing of correctional officers and incidents such as the Boston Marathon bombing.
"I have grave concerns about the state having the power of life and death over other people, but there are circumstances where that's the only penalty that's appropriate for a crime," he said.
The signing may not be the final word on the subject. If opponents of repeal can gather 55,736 valid signatures by June 30 — the first third are due May 31 — the law would go to voters to decide in the November 2014 election.
Del. Neil Parrott, the Western Maryland Republican who led recent referendum drives, has scheduled a news conference Friday at Camden Yards to announce whether he'll try to petition the repeal law as well. Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat who supports capital punishment, also is scheduled to appear.
Parrott declined Thursday to announce the decision, but said: "One way or another, it's not over." According to the State Board of Elections, language for death penalty petition forms has been approved.
Though polls show Marylanders are closely split, repeal advocates say they are confident they would prevail in a referendum.
While the repeal legislation would prevent future death sentences in Maryland, it does not apply to the five men currently on death row. They remain under sentence of death for murders going back as far as 1983, and so far O'Malley has declined to commute their sentences.
None is in imminent danger of execution. Maryland has had a de facto moratorium since 2006, when the state Court of Appeals struck down the rules under which executions were carried out. With passage of repeal, it is questionable whether they will ever be revised.
The marijuana bill makes Maryland the 19th state to allow the use of the drug for medical purposes. It allows legal distribution of marijuana by doctors and nurses through academic medical centers.
The driver's license bill, approved over the fierce objections of most Republicans, would allow the state to issue limited-purpose licenses without proof of legal residency. The restricted licenses would not be valid for such purposes as air travel or entry to federal buildings.
Parrott said he will also announce Friday whether opponents will attempt to petition the driver's license measure to referendum.
Proponents contend it would make highways safer by making sure drivers are licensed and insured regardless of their immigration status. Opponents say it would help to make Maryland a sanctuary for people illegally in the country.
Campaign finance: Among other changes, closes loophole allowing contributors to use multiple LLCs to evade donation limits. It also requires some non-profits that make political contributions to report their top donors.
Other bills signed
Elections: Establishes more and longer days for early voting. Allows same-day registration at early-voting sites.
Health care: Creates infrastructure to implement Affordable Care Act.
Gas bills: Allows utilities to seek an up-front surcharge to cover cost of replacing pipelines.
Sharks: Prohibits possession or sale of shark fins.
Agricultural certainty: Gives some farmers a 10-year reprieve from new environmental regulations.