Maryland Governor Reprieves Last Four Prisoners on Death Row

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley canceled the death sentences of the last four inmates awaiting execution, almost two years after the state became the 18th to do away with capital punishment.

O’Malley, a potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate who will leave office next month, said today he commuted the sentences to life without parole. The decision came after Attorney General Douglas Gansler said that the state no longer had the authority to conduct executions after eliminating the death penalty.

“Leaving these death sentences in place does not serve the public good,” O’Malley said in a statement. “Gubernatorial inaction -- at this point in the legal process -- would, in my judgment, needlessly and callously subject survivors, and the people of Maryland, to the ordeal of an endless appeals process, with unpredictable twists and turns, and without any hope of finality or closure.”

The death penalty has been in decline in the U.S. and the practice has drawn scrutiny this year after lengthy and grisly executions in Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio triggered calls for a moratorium. A California federal judge this year said that the state’s use of the ultimate punishment was so plagued by delays that it was cruel and unusual and therefore unconstitutional.

Waning Practice

The number of death sentences dropped to 72 this year, a four-decade low, from as many as 315 in 1996, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks the issue.

The practice is increasingly confined to a handful of U.S. states. Only seven conducted executions this year. Texas, Missouri and Florida accounted for all but seven of the 35, according to the Justice Department. In 1999, 98 prisoners were put to death.

The shift is driven by questions about the penalty’s fairness and its effectiveness as a deterrent, said Dieter.

“What’s happening is a pragmatic examination that the death penalty isn’t working,” he said. “Over the next decade or so, the death penalty may recede completely from American usage.”

Latest Abstainer

At O’Malley’s urging, Maryland in March 2013 became the most recent state to stop prosecutors from seeking death. New Jersey, New York, Illinois, New Mexico and Connecticut have also done so since 2007 amid concern about cost, racial bias and the risk of wrongful convictions.

The Maryland legislature’s decision didn’t apply to those already on Death Row, and O’Malley said at the time that he would decide later about how to handle those cases.

All four of the inmates -- Heath Burch, Vernon Evans Jr., Anthony Grandison and Jody Lee Miles -- were convicted of murder.

Scott Shellenberger, the state’s attorney in Baltimore County, criticized the decision to commute the sentences of Grandison and Evans for their roles in the 1983 murder of two witnesses set to testify against Grandison in a federal drug case.

“These sentences were lawfully imposed and upheld numerous times on appeal,” he said today in a statement. “The Governor should not be using his last days in office to show any mercy to these cold, calculating murderers.”

Connecticut and New Mexico also have prisoners awaiting death following decisions to stop the punishment. Dieter said O’Malley’s step could serve as a model to those states.

“It wouldn’t make sense to execute a few people whose sole difference is the calendar,” he said.

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