Today, Gov. Martin O'Malley joins the NAACP and other civil rights groups in an all-out push to abolish capital punishment in Maryland. Advocates say they believe they have the votes in both the Senate and House of Delegates, and a long-standing bottleneck in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee appears no longer to be an obstacle to a floor vote on the issue. Given the governor's commitment to make this legislation part of his agenda, and the turnover in the Senate since the last major push for a repeal in 2009, the odds for abolishing capital punishment in Maryland appear better than ever.
What is somewhat incongruous about the timing of this push is that it comes a few days after the release of new poll data showing that Marylanders, by a solid margin, do not favor a repeal. An OpinionWorks survey conducted late last month and early this month found 48 percent opposed to a repeal and 42 percent in favor. Given the recent success of conservative activists in petitioning acts of the General Assembly to the ballot, it's fair to ask whether the governor and other repeal proponents are setting themselves up for failure.
We don't think so. There is strong reason to believe that when Marylanders think more deeply about the issue — and the alternatives to capital punishment — that a majority will support the end of a policy that costs too much, achieves little, and diminishes us as a society.
Support for the death penalty in Maryland is markedly lower than it is elsewhere — the most recent Gallup poll on the issue found support at 63 percent nationally, a significant drop from a high of 80 percent recorded in 1994. But both Gallup and OpinionWorks asked the question as a straight yes-or-no proposition, rather than presenting respondents with options. When life without parole is offered as an alternative in polls, the response nationally and in Maryland is quite different. A 2010 Washington Post poll found Maryland voters in favor of the death penalty by a 60-32 margin. But when the paper asked respondents whether they preferred life without parole or the death penalty as a punishment for murderers, life in prison won, 49-40.
That corresponds with the way Maryland juries have viewed the issue in recent years. In 2011, a Harford County jury decided against the death penalty for a Rosedale man convicted in a contract killing. The next year, an Anne Arundel County jury opted against the death penalty for a man already serving life in prison who was convicted of killing a prison guard. In fact, a Maryland jury has not sentenced anyone to death since 1998. Maryland has executed five people since reinstating capital punishment in 1976 and has five people on death row now, three of whom were sentenced in 1983. If jurors, who are forced to confront the gruesome facts of the most heinous murders, choose life without parole instead of capital punishment, so too will Maryland voters, if they are given a chance.
The last time the legislature took up this issue, a repeal bill was amended on the Senate floor to instead tighten the rules for the kinds of evidence prosecutors need to present in order to pursue the death penalty, with the idea that by requiring biological evidence like DNA or a videotape of the crime or of a confession we can eliminate the possibility of executing an innocent person. That is not enough. Errors are always possible, and such rules don't begin to address the very real questions of fairness and equity inherent in Maryland's death penalty, which has suffered from racial and geographic biases in its application. Nor does it limit the economic costs of all the appeals necessary to make sure an execution is just.
Maryland has not executed anyone since the Court of Appeals found fault with the manner in which the state's capital punishment protocol was approved. But a de facto moratorium is not sufficient. So long as the death penalty remains on the books, it perverts the criminal justice system into a vehicle for vengeance.
Replacing the death penalty with a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole serves to protect society and render severe punishment on those who commit the worst crimes. It is cost-effective, and it provides finality for the families of murder victims in a way that the death penalty does not. If our lawmakers pass a repeal and explain it in those terms, Maryland's voters will support them.