He said anti-death-penalty forces have been on a roll, having banned capital punishment in five states in five years, including Connecticut last year. He said the NAACP's strategy is to win abolition in a majority of states and then to ask the Supreme Court to strike it down as an unconstitutionally "unusual" punishment.

O'Malley's staff was noncommittal this week about whether he would make another major effort at repeal, saying only that the matter is under discussion within the governor's office.

But Jealous said he hopes to persuade O'Malley to make another try.

"I anticipate we will be back in his office before the session begins" in January, Jealous said. "He's had the courage of his convictions on this issue for a long time."

The NAACP chief said that with the governor's help, the group is confident it could be successful in the coming legislative session.

"We know we have the votes if the leadership will just let it get to the floor," he said.

That, however, is a big if. To get a repeal bill to the Senate floor under standard procedure, the Judicial Proceedings Committee would have to approve it. A 6-5 majority on the panel has consistently supported the death penalty. Any change in the committee's composition would be up to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who opposes repeal.

Meanwhile, in the House, Speaker Michael E. Busch has expressed reluctance to force his members to make tough votes on a measure that couldn't pass the other chamber.

Even some of the General Assembly's most vocal supporters of repeal are dubious about its prospects.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a death penalty opponent and Judicial Proceedings chairman, said there might be barely enough votes to pass repeal on the Senate floor. "Getting it out of committee might be the trick," he said.

Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he has little enthusiasm for one strategy suggested by repeal proponents — persuading Miller to shuffle committee memberships to dislodge the bill.

"I don't think it's good policy to shift members of committees to pick up a vote on one issue," he said.

Maryland has not executed any prisoners since 2005, when convicted murderer Wesley Baker was put to death after then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, declined to spare him. Because of the court-imposed halt the next year, O'Malley has not faced a decision whether to sign a death warrant.

The moratorium has largely been a result of the state's slow progress in rewriting its death penalty protocols and a shortage of chemicals for the "cocktails" used to carry out lethal injections. A draft set of regulations proposed by the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections was turned down by a legislative committee last year, and no new proposal seems imminent.

Some chemicals used for lethal injections are in scant supply due to a reluctance by European manufacturers to allow their products to be used to kill people. Public Safety Department spokesman Rick Binetti said the state has no execution chemicals in inventory.

Some states have shifted to a single, still-available barbiturate for lethal injections, but Maryland law calls for a multi-drug mix.

To change that would require the legislature to pass a law that would in effect jump-start the death penalty.

While repeal might be a close call, Frosh said he's certain there aren't enough votes to pass such a measure in the face of a possible Senate filibuster.

"It's not like people are banging on the door saying you've got to start killing these people," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com