O'Malley to lead death penalty repeal bid

Gov. Martin O'Malley will announce Tuesday that he will make an all-out push for repeal of the death penalty in Maryland, renewing an effort that narrowly fell short four years ago.

The governor is scheduled to appear at a noon news conference in Annapolis along with NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and other opponents of capital punishment. The NAACP has made repeal of Maryland's death penalty and its replacement with life without parole a leading goal for 2013.

Jealous said O'Malley has assured him that repeal will be part of his legislative agenda for the General Assembly session that opened last week. The NAACP chief said the group did as the governor asked and provided a vote count showing majorities willing to support repeal in the Senate and the House of Delegates.

"We've cleared the two bars. Now he's following through," Jealous said.

O'Malley has long opposed the death penalty but hasn't made repeal part of his agenda since 2009, when the effort ended in a compromise that sharply limited the circumstances under which the sentence can be imposed. Under the law, prosecutors are able to seek the death penalty only when they have DNA or biological evidence, a videotape of the crime or a video-recorded confession by the killer.

The governor, by including a repeal proposal in his legislative package this year, would send a more powerful message to lawmakers than simply supporting a bill.

Opponents of capital punishment believe this may be the year they finally achieve their goal. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has said that if O'Malley can round up the votes for repeal, he'll see that the proposal gets an up-or-down vote in the full Senate. Repeal legislation has stalled in a Senate committee in the past, with a 6-5 majority in favor of retaining the death penalty.

No votes are known to have changed on that panel, but Miller, who supports the death penalty for particularly heinous murders, can take steps to get a bill to the Senate floor.

It takes 24 votes to pass a bill in the 47-member Senate, and O'Malley's expected announcement indicates that he's at least close to that number. Death penalty opponents have long contended that if they can get a repeal bill through the Senate, the votes are there to pass it in the House of Delegates.

In past votes, the death penalty has remained on the books because most Republicans and a bloc of mostly conservative and moderate Democrats have balked at outright repeal. Even some generally liberal Democrats believe it should be retained in certain circumstances. At least one bill has been introduced to expand the use of the death penalty, but it has no realistic chance of becoming law.

Del. Neil C. Parrott, a Washington County Republican, said Monday he rejects the idea of repeal. "The death penalty's a tool that has to be in the toolbox," Parrott said. He said prosecutors use it to negotiate with defendants to get them to accept plea bargains with sentences of life without parole.

An O'Malley victory in the legislature would not necessarily settle the matter. Supporters of the death penalty could seek to round up enough signatures to put the question to referendum on the 2014 ballot. Miller said last week that he expects the issue to ultimately be resolved by the voters.

Marylanders are sharply divided on the question, according to a recent poll by Annapolis-based OpinionWorks. The survey showed voters oppose repeal, 48 percent to 42 percent, a smaller margin than found by other polls in recent years. Some polls have shown voters more willing to support repeal if life without parole is offered as an alternative.

If Maryland repeals its death penalty law, it would become the 18th U.S. state, along with the District of Columbia, to eliminate capital punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The last state to take the death penalty off the books was Connecticut, where the legislature voted last year for repeal after a push by the NAACP.

Maryland now has five men on death row — three of them for murders committed in 1983. The state conducted its last execution in 2005 and has observed a de facto moratorium since the Court of Appeals in 2006 threw out the regulations under which the penalty would be applied. A General Assembly committee rejected the O'Malley administration's first attempt to rewrite the rules in 2011, and the matter has languished ever since.

It was not clear how the governor's legislation would affect those currently under a death sentence. Baltimore Democratic Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, sponsor of the legislation in past years, said those versions did not apply to inmates already on death row.

But she and Jealous both said it would be unlikely that courts would permit them to be executed.

"In practical terms, you can expect the prosecutors will have a very difficult time in the courts trying to explain why they want to execute someone in a state that's abolished the death penalty," Jealous said.

The NAACP chief said the vote in the Assembly may not be as close as it now appears.

"We think when the votes are cast, it will pass solidly," he said.