A Western Maryland woman whose parents were killed by a man on death row urged Gov. Martin O'Malley in a phone conversation Monday not to commute the man's sentence.
The conversation came days after The Baltimore Sun reported that O'Malley had reached out to two relatives of people killed by men on death row — moves that fueled speculation that, with two months left in office, the governor may be poised to take action on the death penalty cases.
"I said, 'Don't touch this [case], let it go back to court, let the judges decide,'" said Mary Francis Moore, 71, whose father and his wife were killed in 1995 by Heath William Burch.
Moore said that in their roughly 15-minute phone conversation, O'Malley did not say what his plans were. But they discussed what might happen to Burch in light of another inmate's appeal. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has joined the appeal, arguing that the state no longer has the authority to execute anyone.
O'Malley "talked about the possibility that if it did go back to court, that these guys would get out, that they would only get life," not life without possibility of parole, Moore said.
Moore said she concluded the conversation by asking O'Malley "to pray about it." The governor told her, she said, "I hope we meet some day."
A spokeswoman for the governor said he would have no comment about the conversation.
O'Malley has largely refused to discuss the fate of the men who were already sentenced to death when he and the General Assembly repealed the death penalty last year. The repeal did not apply to them.
Maryland's governor has broad power to pardon or reduce an inmate's sentence, but the authors of the death penalty repeal law included language spelling out that he could change a death sentence to life without parole — even if that sentence did not exist when the inmate committed his crime. Two men on death row commited their crimes before 1987, when Maryland lawmakers established the sentence of life without parole.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a proponent of repeal and the attorney general-elect, said Monday that a court would not be able to resentence an inmate to a penalty that did not exist at the time he was convicted, but the governor can.
Advocates on both sides of the issue have been watching to see whether O'Malley might commute the sentences of the four men remaining on death row. O'Malley has said only that he would consider each case as requests for clemency reached his desk.
A lawyer for Burch said he submitted such a petition earlier this year. Burch, 45, was sentenced to die in 1996 for killing Moore's father, Robert Davis, 72, and her stepmother, Cleo Davis, 77, in their Capitol Heights home.
Moore said she "begged" O'Malley not to grant Burch clemency, though he never clearly said he was considering that. She thinks Burch should be put to death.
"I asked him, 'What are you going to do, governor?' I asked him two or three times, 'What are your plans?'"
She said O'Malley asked her how old she was when her father was killed. "Dad was killed when he was 72. I'm 71, and I'm still going great," she said. "I told [O'Malley] about [her father's] brother being 90 years old and still being in good mind. I have lost a lot of years with my dad and Cleo."
"The last thing I said to him was, 'I want you to really think about this, and I want you to pray about it, because I want you to do the right thing,'" she said. "The right thing to me is leave it alone."
Even before the death penalty repeal, the status of Maryland's death row inmates had been up in the air since 2006 when the state's regulations for executions were thrown out by a court. They were never replaced.
Lawyers from the attorney general's office are scheduled to argue Dec. 8 before a state appellate court that Maryland can't issue new regulations now that capital punishment has been abolished.
An appeal by another death row inmate, Jody Lee Miles, faces an uncertain outcome in the courts. But Gansler has noted O'Malley's authority to commute death sentences to life without parole. Governors in Illinois and New Jersey commuted the existing death sentences in their states after the repeal of capital punishment.
Dorothy Atkinson, whose son was killed by Miles in 1997, said she, too, was contacted by the governor's office about a meeting.
And Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said gubernatorial aides also reached out to his office, seeking contact information for relatives of the victims of the other two men on death row, Vernon Evans and Anthony Grandison.
Though Atkinson believes Miles deserves to be executed, she submitted a letter to O'Malley two weeks ago, asking him to commute Miles' sentence to spare her family from the ordeal of further legal wrangling.
Del. Samuel L. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who has been an outspoken advocate for ending the death penalty, said he is encouraged that O'Malley is reaching out to the families.
"I take [the accounts] as a positive sign that he feels that his decision should be based upon his conversations with the people who've suffered this loss," Rosenberg said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.