Having won approval in both chambers of Maryland's General Assembly, a landmark bill to abolish the state's death penalty awaits only Gov. Martin O'Malley's signature before becoming law. It is a tremendous political and moral victory for Mr. O'Malley, a long-time opponent of capital punishment who campaigned for a repeal during his first term only to come up short.
That leaves only one major item of unfinished business on his agenda regarding the issue: Commuting the sentences of the five men currently on Maryland's death row to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The governor must use the historic opportunity presented by the abolition of capital punishment in Maryland to unequivocally put an end to the last vestiges of this barbaric practice in the state's prisons.
The bill abolishing Maryland's death penalty that the governor is expected to sign does not apply retroactively to defendants who were sentenced to be executed while the old statute was still in effect. Thus although Mr. O'Malley has presided over a long-term de facto moratorium on capital punishment — there have been no executions in the state since 2005 — the five men on its death row remain condemned to die, and there is no assurance that a future Maryland governor wouldn't allow their sentences to be carried out. That would make a mockery of the religious, moral and practical arguments against the death penalty that finally led to its abolition.
In applauding this year's ban on capital punishment, Mr. O'Malley cited many of those arguments as reasons for his opposition to the practice. He noted the voluminous body of evidence showing that the death penalty does not deter crime, that it is inherently discriminatory along racial and class lines, that it costs three times as much as a sentence of life in prison without parole and that the risk of executing an innocent person can never be entirely eliminated. Moreover, the lengthy appeals process in capital cases and the suspension of Maryland's executions over improperly adopted regulations has left the families of murder victims waiting decades for a sense of finality and closure. Failing to commute the death sentences would only prolong that agony.
Aides to the governor say Mr. O'Malley will sign Maryland's death penalty repeal soon after this year's legislative session adjourns April 8, and it's unclear whether supporters of the capital punishment will try to reverse his action by bringing it to referendum in the next general election in 2014. Whether such an effort would succeed is hard to guess. The Goucher Poll, released last week, found that 51 percent of Marylanders opposed a repeal while 43 percent supported it. But the poll found that 48 percent favor a sentence of life without parole as a punishment for murder and 40 percent prefer the death penalty.
Mr. O'Malley has indicated that he will review the sentences of Maryland's five death row inmates on a case-by-case basis. All of the men involved were convicted of heinous and brutal crimes that merit the severest punishment. But if it is the governor's intention to now pick and choose between those whose sentences he will commute to life imprisonment and those he will allow to be executed, likely under a future administration, he will undermine the very principles on which he has based his opposition to the death penalty in the past.
If the governor believed when campaigning for the repeal that the state's system of capital punishment is broken, and if the death penalty is unfair, unworkable and discriminatory, then it was certainly no less so when the five cases now before the governor were adjudicated.
The acts for which the condemned inmates were convicted are no more or less despicable now than they were when they were committed, and the grieving families of their victims are no less deserving of justice. But having established the principle that capital punishment has no place in a humane society, it would be unconscionable for the state to continue to exact the ultimate penalty against individuals whose crimes occurred before the law was changed.
Despite his long-standing opposition to capital punishment, Mr. O'Malley assured voters in his first run for governor that he would carry out the death penalty if elected. But the circumstances have now changed. In enacting a repeal, the General Assembly conveyed its intent that the governor convert the sentences of death row inmates to life without the possibility of parole. Governor O'Malley should do so as soon as possible. Both conscience and duty demand it.