Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Wednesday that he would erase the last vestiges of Maryland's death row by commuting the sentences of the state's remaining condemned murderers to life without parole.
Acting on the last day of the year and with three weeks remaining in his term, O'Malley said he will spare the lives of four men left in limbo after Maryland abolished the death penalty for future offenders in 2013.
The four are Vernon Evans, Anthony Grandison, Jody Lee Miles and Heath William Burch.
Evans and Grandison were convicted in a 1983 contract killing at a Baltimore County hotel. Burch was sentenced to die in 1996 for killing an elderly couple when he broke into their home in Prince George's County. Miles was found guilty of the 1997 murder of a man during a robbery in Salisbury.
While advocates for abolishing the death penalty and attorneys for some inmates applauded O'Malley's decision, attorneys for Miles said they did not welcome it. They intend to seek the possibility of parole for their client in court, and legal experts said O'Malley's commutation could complicate that request.
In a statement, O'Malley said he had spoken recently to the survivors of some of the victims of the four men's crimes. He expressed gratitude to the family members for sharing their thoughts and said he had concluded that failing to act would "needlessly and callously" subject then to an "endless" appeals process.
"The question at hand is whether any public good is served by allowing these essentially un-executable sentences to stand," O'Malley said. "In my judgment, leaving these death sentences in place does not serve the public good of the people of Maryland — present or future."
Spokesman Ron Boehmer said the governor's office would publish a notice Monday of his intention to commute the sentences, as is required by the Maryland Constitution. The actual commutation will come after a two-week comment period that ends Jan. 19, Boehmer said. O'Malley, a Democrat, leaves office Jan. 21.
His successor, Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, said he would not "second-guess what is the most difficult decision for this or any governor."
"I am sure the governor came to this decision after a great deal of consultation, prayer, and a thorough review of the facts," Hogan said.
Before the commutation decision, the inmates were in no immediate danger of execution because Maryland has been under a de facto death penalty moratorium since the Court of Appeals voided the state's rules for imposing the death penalty in 2006.
O'Malley led the effort to repeal the state's death penalty in 2013, but the legislation approved by the General Assembly did not address the fate of inmates already under death sentences, except to state that the governor has the power to commute death sentences to life without parole.
Maryland was one of three states that abolished capital punishment in recent years but left inmates on death row. New Mexico left two inmates on death row and Connecticut 11, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. None has been commuted, and none has been executed.
Burch was convicted of the 1995 murders of Robert Davis, 70, and Cleo Davis, 77, in their home in Capitol Heights. The Davises' daughter, Mary F. Moore of Boonsboro, said Wednesday that she asked O'Malley three times not to commute Burch's sentence. She said she was "devastated" when an aide to the governor called her with the news Tuesday evening.
Moore, 71, expressed concern that Burch could someday be set free.
"I'm scared to death that this guy is going to get out," she said.
Moore said she had accepted that Burch would not be executed. But now that Burch no longer faces a death sentence, she's concerned he'll be more free to mix with the general prison population.
"He'll have a life, and I don't think he should," she said.
Gary Proctor, a lawyer for Burch, thanked O'Malley for what the attorney called "a tough and courageous moral decision."
"Given that repeal of the death penalty has already occurred in the legislature, it was indeed time that Maryland's machinery of death was consigned to the history books," Proctor said.
While Burch's attorney appealed to O'Malley for a commutation, Miles' lawyers sent the governor a letter in November asking him not to change the sentence to life without parole. The lawyers told O'Malley that Miles instead wanted an opportunity to ask a judge to change his sentence to life with the possibility of parole.
Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler forced the issue into the public eye this fall when he supported Miles' appeal asking the state's second-highest court to throw out his death penalty.
In court, Gansler argued that the state no longer had the authority to execute anyone even though the repeal law wasn't meant to be retroactive. With the death penalty abolished, the state has no way to write new regulations to carry out the executions of Miles and the other death-row inmates, Gansler argued.
Gansler suggested the appeals court could impose a sentence of life without parole or order a lower court to do so.
Miles' attorneys hoped the appeals court would order a new sentencing proceeding in the lower court that would include the possibility of an eventual parole. The case is pending.
"He's the best of the best of the inmates," Miles' attorney, Robert W. Biddle, told the appeals court. "Is that someone who should get life without parole?"
On Wednesday, Biddle and his co-counsel said in a statement that they are likely to legally challenge O'Malley's authority to change their client's sentence to life without parole. They urged the governor to change his mind.
Gansler said O'Malley had "no other choice" in these cases.
"They can litigate as much as they want, but the governor clearly has the authority to commute a sentence for life without parole," he said.
Biddle said Miles, 45, was abused as a child and became a model prisoner while incarcerated. Miles was convicted of the robbery and murder of musical theater director Edward Joseph Atkinson.
Atkinson's mother, Dorothy, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
A leading supporter of capital punishment, Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, released a statement saying he was "extremely disappointed" by O'Malley's decision.
Shellenberger pointed to the case in which Grandison and Evans were convicted two decades ago. The prosecutor noted that Evans, hired by Grandison to silence witnesses, entered the lobby of a Pikesville hotel and gunned down Susan Kennedy, 19, and Scott Piechowicz, 27.
"Death was the decision of the jury. These sentences were lawfully imposed and upheld numerous times on appeal," Shellenberger said. "The governor should not be using his last days in office to show any mercy to these cold, calculating murderers."
Randy Piechowicz, first cousin of Scott Piechowicz, said family members were disappointed in O'Malley's announcement because they had hoped to see the sentences carried out one day. However, he said he understood the rationale for the governor's decision.
"We had pretty much given up hope a while ago, and this kind of makes it official," he said.
Five inmates, all convicted murderers, were on Maryland's death row when the legislature voted to repeal capital punishment. One of them, John Booth-El, died of natural causes in April.
Booth-El's attorney, Michael Millemann, said his client would have welcomed O'Malley's commutation but would have argued against life without parole as an acceptable alternative.
When Booth-El was convicted in 1990 of killing his neighbors in Northwest Baltimore in 1983, Maryland law called for only life with parole or the death penalty.
"He certainly wanted the death penalty commuted. There would have been an issue of commuted to what," said Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor who has represented death row clients in Maryland and Florida for decades.
Before 2013, advocates had lobbied the legislature for a decade to eliminate capital punishment in Maryland. For them, the four remaining death row inmates symbolized a job not yet finished — and enduring anguish for families.
"For everyone involved, this is the best course of action," said Jane Henderson, who was executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.
"These cases were going to go through the courts and go back and forth in appeals until some sentence was determined," she said. "This has been the problem with the death penalty for many, many years. It puts families through a roller coaster. What the death penalty does to the families of victims is just cruel, and it was always going to be that way."
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who led the fight in the House of Delegates to abolish the death penalty, said O'Malley is doing the right thing.
"It's done. It's over with, and life without parole was the appropriate penalty for these four persons and consistent with what we did in the legislature," Rosenberg said.
The veteran lawmaker expressed confidence that once it's shut down, Maryland's death row will never reopen. "Clearly, the trend across the country is to repeal," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.