NAACP to step up Maryland death penalty fight

The NAACP is vowing to mount in Annapolis its largest-ever effort to abolish the death penalty in a state, saying Maryland's historic role in the civil rights movement makes it an appropriate place for the push.

In an interview, NAACP President Ben Jealous said Maryland is the civil rights organization's top priority in its broader campaign to eliminate capital punishment from the American justice system. He said the group will spend more than it ever has in a state as it rallies citizens to pressure lawmakers for repeal.

"We'll make sure people hear from their constituents in a way they've never heard from them before," Jealous said.

The NAACP has historically opposed the death penalty for a variety of reasons, including racial disparities in how it is applied. Jealous said Maryland is especially important to the NAACP because of the state's civil rights history — including the careers of native sons Thurgood Marshall and Frederick Douglass.

"There's a special debt of honor to get this done in Maryland for the NAACP," Jealous said.

His announcement comes as Gov. Martin O'Malley, a death penalty opponent, is weighing whether to put the full weight of his office behind a renewed effort to shut down Maryland's Death Row. A previous O'Malley effort ended in 2009 with a compromise bill that narrowed the circumstances under which a killer can be sentenced to death but left capital punishment on the books.

Jealous declined to say how much money the NAACP plans to raise for the campaign. He said that in addition to its existing resources, the group will hold dedicated fundraisers for the Maryland repeal effort, along with "unlikely and powerful allies" he declined to name.

While a full-scale effort by the NAACP could be influential, there is no guarantee that its clout would be powerful enough to break the impasse that has existed in the Maryland General Assembly.

"I just don't see much happening this year," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, who nevertheless plans to sponsor a death penalty repeal bill as she has in previous years. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, said passage would require a full-scale effort by O'Malley, a Democrat, who is believed to have national ambitions.

"He is so focused on Washington right now," she said. "I just don't think it's worth the lift for him."

But Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, is more hopeful about the governor and the legislature.

"This is our year, and I have a lot of faith that there's movement we couldn't muster last year," she said.

The NAACP has actively sought to eliminate capital punishment in Maryland before — with Jealous himself testifying in Annapolis this year. But repeal supporters have not been able to get past a state Senate committee with a pro-death penalty majority.

General Assembly leaders have been reluctant to take up the divisive issue unless they can be sure the effort will prevail in both the House and Senate. While repeal proponents say they have the votes on the floors of both chambers to pass a bill, legislative insiders are doubtful — with Senate staff saying proponents appear to be a vote or two short.

Lawmakers are also keenly aware that any repeal bill would likely be petitioned to a referendum that would be held in November 2014, when many of them will be seeking re-election. In California, voters recently defeated a repeal proposition 53 percent to 47 percent.

Even some who favor repeal say any sense of urgency has been diminished by a de facto moratorium on executions in Maryland since 2006, the result of a court ruling striking down the regulations under which executions are carried out. Maryland has five men on Death Row — four black, one white — for murders going back as far as 1983, and it appears that over the next several years they face little risk of a lethal injection.

The five killers sentenced to death here are not likely to evoke much sympathy. They include the gunman and mastermind in a 1983 witness assassination plot that killed two at a Baltimore County motel, two men who murdered elderly neighbors in separate robberies in Prince George's County in 1996 and Baltimore in 1983, and the killer of a theater manager on the Eastern Shore in 1997.

Jealous said that while the freeze on executions may spare those men in the short term, keeping the death penalty on the books imposes costs that divert state resources from other crime-fighting measures.

"Every million dollars we spend on the death penalty is a million dollars we can't spend on hiring homicide detectives," he said.

He said anti-death-penalty forces have been on a roll, having banned capital punishment in five states in five years, including Connecticut last year. He said the NAACP's strategy is to win abolition in a majority of states and then to ask the Supreme Court to strike it down as an unconstitutionally "unusual" punishment.

O'Malley's staff was noncommittal this week about whether he would make another major effort at repeal, saying only that the matter is under discussion within the governor's office.

But Jealous said he hopes to persuade O'Malley to make another try.

"I anticipate we will be back in his office before the session begins" in January, Jealous said. "He's had the courage of his convictions on this issue for a long time."

The NAACP chief said that with the governor's help, the group is confident it could be successful in the coming legislative session.

"We know we have the votes if the leadership will just let it get to the floor," he said.

That, however, is a big if. To get a repeal bill to the Senate floor under standard procedure, the Judicial Proceedings Committee would have to approve it. A 6-5 majority on the panel has consistently supported the death penalty. Any change in the committee's composition would be up to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who opposes repeal.

Meanwhile, in the House, Speaker Michael E. Busch has expressed reluctance to force his members to make tough votes on a measure that couldn't pass the other chamber.

Even some of the General Assembly's most vocal supporters of repeal are dubious about its prospects.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a death penalty opponent and Judicial Proceedings chairman, said there might be barely enough votes to pass repeal on the Senate floor. "Getting it out of committee might be the trick," he said.

Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he has little enthusiasm for one strategy suggested by repeal proponents — persuading Miller to shuffle committee memberships to dislodge the bill.

"I don't think it's good policy to shift members of committees to pick up a vote on one issue," he said.

Maryland has not executed any prisoners since 2005, when convicted murderer Wesley Baker was put to death after then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, declined to spare him. Because of the court-imposed halt the next year, O'Malley has not faced a decision whether to sign a death warrant.

The moratorium has largely been a result of the state's slow progress in rewriting its death penalty protocols and a shortage of chemicals for the "cocktails" used to carry out lethal injections. A draft set of regulations proposed by the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections was turned down by a legislative committee last year, and no new proposal seems imminent.

Some chemicals used for lethal injections are in scant supply due to a reluctance by European manufacturers to allow their products to be used to kill people. Public Safety Department spokesman Rick Binetti said the state has no execution chemicals in inventory.

Some states have shifted to a single, still-available barbiturate for lethal injections, but Maryland law calls for a multi-drug mix.

To change that would require the legislature to pass a law that would in effect jump-start the death penalty.

While repeal might be a close call, Frosh said he's certain there aren't enough votes to pass such a measure in the face of a possible Senate filibuster.

"It's not like people are banging on the door saying you've got to start killing these people," he said.