NAACP head calls for death penalty abolition this year

Ben Jealous, the national NAACP president, came to Annapolis Tuesday to call on Maryland legislators to make this the year the state does away with the death penalty.

Flanked by several legislators, Jealous said he intends to return to Annapolis repeatedly through the 90-day legislative session that starts Wednesday to work for repeal.

Death penalty opponents have come close in recent years to securing the votes needed to remove capital punishment from the books, but each time have fallen a few votes short.

This year, they are hoping that lingering doubts about the guilt or innocence of Troy Davis, a 42-year-old who was convicted of murder in 1981 and executed in Georgia in September, will give fresh impetus to their efforts.

Jealous, who noted that he will soon move to a new House in Silver Spring, said he plans to meet with Gov. Martin O'Malley soon to urge him to step up efforts to secure the votes needed for repeal. O'Malley is an opponent of the death penalty but has been reluctant to make repeal a priority since an effort at full abolition fell short in 2009.

The NAACP chief said the state and some counties are wasting money on endless death penalty appeals instead of applying those resources to catching criminals and aiding the families of victims.

“All of us are unsafe as long as we permit prosecutions like those in Baltimore County to indulge in wasting criminal justice dollars,” he said.

Lawmakers who favor repeal say they have the votes it would take to pass a repeal bill on the floor of both chambers. But Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, the chief Senate sponsor of repeal legislation, said opponents still need a sixth vote on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to advance legislation to the Senate floor.

Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, urged death penalty opponents to contact Sens. James Brochin and Robert Zirkin, both Baltimore County Democrats, to urge them to supply the decisive vote. Brochin and Zirkin are seen as the swing votes on the issue.

Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg said opponents want Assembly leaders to “give us a vote on the merits.”

Jealous said outrage over the execution of Davis, who maintained his innocence to the end, had aroused concern around the country -- giving opponents a chance at winning repeal battles in Connecticut and California as well as Maryland. He said the Davis execution became the most-tweeted topic on Twitter among young people with the exception of Beyonce's pregnancy.

“People care deeply about this issue,” he said.

Rosenberg said the Davis case “makes the point yet again that this is a penalty that will not be fixed.”

Zirkin. however, said the Davis case is a bad example for Maryland opponents to seize on because that conviction was based largely on eyewitness identification. He noted that when Maryland changed its death penalty law, it excluded the death penalty in cases based on eyewitness evidence.

Whie Zirkin said nothing has fundamentally changed his thinking about the death penalty since that compromise was passed, he added that he is "willing to listen to debate."




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