Proponents of overturning Maryland's death penalty appear to be within one or two votes of gaining enough political clout to push repeal through the state Senate, where previous efforts have failed.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and Senate President Thomas Mike V. Miller said Tuesday that, at most, two legislators stand in the way of bringing the issue to a floor vote. Miller has said he would ensure the issue gets a vote in the 47-member chamber, after previous bills had been bottled up in a committee, if the governor lines up enough support for passage.
"The numbers are very close to a majority if not already there," O'Malley said in advance of an annual pre-session luncheon held by state Democrats.
O'Malley, a long-time death penalty opponent, called the current death penalty law "not very effective," both because of the cost of legal proceedings and executions and because the state lacks legal rules for carrying out executions.
"The legislature either needs to fix a broken system or repeal it," O'Malley said, offering his strongest public comments yet on whether the General Assembly should pursue the issue after it convenes Wednesday. The governor, however, has not said whether repeal would be part of his legislative agenda.
The legislature last tackled death penalty repeal in 2009 and ultimately limited the circumstances in which capital punishment can be carried out. A de facto moratorium on executions has been in place since a 2006 court ruling overturned state rules on the process for lethal injection.
Miller supports the death penalty and said he would prefer to see it expanded to be applied to mass murderers and people who kill teachers, a reference to the December mass killing at a Connecticut elementary school.
Yet, Miller said he's willing to ask an anti-repeal senator on the committee that favors capital punishment to change a vote to bring it to a full vote.
"I'm going to vote against it, but I think it should be brought to the floor," Miller said. He added that said he knows "who the likely switches are going to be" on a final decision, though he declined to name them.
Death penalty opponents are confident they would have the votes for repeal in the House of Delegates.
The NAACP and others have urged lawmakers to make death penalty repeal a priority in the 2013 session.
Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and leading proponent of repeal, said the death penalty issue appears to be approaching a "tipping point."
"We're on the death penalty this year where we were on same-sex marriage two years ago," he said. "People said marriage equality was impossible and then impossible became inevitable."