Maryland Death Penalty Ban Advances as More States End Killings

Maryland lawmakers are considering repealing the death penalty after five other states ended capital punishment in the last six years.

The House of Delegates is set to vote as soon as today on a bill that would stop prosecutors from seeking to execute those convicted of murder, the only crime for which the state allows capital punishment. The measure passed the Senate earlier this month and almost half of the delegates in the House are sponsoring the repeal.

Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, has long sought to abolish the death penalty. The legislature is also moving toward adopting some of the nation’s strictest gun laws backed by O’Malley, including new licensing requirements for handguns, in response to the December school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Maryland would become the 18th state without the death penalty. New Jersey, New York, Illinois, New Mexico and Connecticut since 2007 have abolished executions amid concern about the cost, racial-bias in its use and the risk of condemning wrongfully convicted.

“There’s a pretty strong trend away from capital punishment,” said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates against the practice. “It would be more of a surprise if it didn’t pass.”

Declining Executions

While Maryland and 32 other states allow the death penalty, its use has declined nationally over the past decade. There were 78 such sentences handed out last year, down from as many as 315 during the mid-1990s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In Maryland, the death penalty is rarely used. There are five people on death row -- three of whom were sentenced more than 25 years ago -- and only five have been executed since the early 1990s. The most recent was Wesley Eugene Baker, who was executed in 2005 for killing a woman in front of her two grandchildren in a shopping mall parking lot.

Executions in Maryland have effectively been banned since 2006, when a court ruled that the regulatory procedures for administering them were adopted without required public comment. The O’Malley administration hasn’t completed regulations that would allow it to be reintroduced.

O’Malley, who was elected governor in 2006, has argued that the death penalty fails to deter crime, costs three times as much as sentencing someone to life without parole, and is prone to racial bias.

The Catholic Church and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Baltimore-based civil rights group, joined the effort to repeal capital punishment.

Jail Murders

During the debate in the Maryland House on March 13, some lawmakers said the death penalty should remain as a punishment for crimes such as mass murder and killing children.

“They say it’s no deterrent,” said Maryland Delegate C.T. Wilson, a Democrat. “It’s not supposed to be, it’s a punishment.”

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, said in 2011 he wouldn’t allow executions during his term, a step that didn’t need legislation. In January, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat, said he would be willing to halt them in his state, if the legislature approved a bill to do so. Colorado Representative Claire Levy, a leader of the Democrats, is planning to advance a bill to do away with it there.

“We will see more states looking to take the same action,” said Shari Silberstein, the executive director of Equal Justice USA, a Brooklyn-based group that advocates for repeal.

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