ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O'Malley said Tuesday he will throw his support behind legislation to repeal the death penalty in Maryland this year, even as recent polling suggests the relative majority of Marylanders still support
Flanked by civil rights activists and lawmakers, Mr. O'Malley said he plans to file legislation this week in the Maryland General Assembly that would outlaw capital punishment after he backed two earlier unsuccessful attempts during his first term as governor.
"The death penalty is expensive, and it does not work, and for that reason alone, I believe we should stop doing it," said Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, contending the death penalty has not worked as a deterrent to violent crime.
Advances in law enforcement technology and smart policing initiatives have done more than the death penalty to reduce the state's crime rate, and money spent on appeals filed in capital-punishment cases could instead be used to provide more funding for those initiatives, Mr. O'Malley said.
Activists, including those from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and from anti-death penalty groups, joined the governor for the announcement, and some legislators spoke optimistically of the chance of passing a repeal.
"If it gets there, we will pass it," said Delegate Aisha N. Braveboy, Prince George's Democrat, of the bill's introduction to the House of Delegates.
Though death-penalty repeal has the governor's support, the legislation will still face detractors who see capital punishment as a tool in the judicial process even if it is used rarely in the state.
"You need the ultimate penalty there so that if they take a plea, a murderer and a rapist, the plea is life without parole, and they never ever walk the streets again," said Sen. James Brochin, Baltimore County Democrat, who said he would vote against repeal legislation. "If you start with life without parole, and that's the worst thing you get, and the state's attorney takes a plea to life, then conceivably a rapist and a murderer can walk out after 25 or 30 years."
Speaking after the governor's news conference, Mr. Brochin, a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which would consider the bill, said "misplaced priorities" are behind the repeal effort.
Though the legislation has yet to even be introduced, lawmakers have already broached the prospect of a referendum after Republicans led efforts last year to put legislation passed by the General Assembly on three high-profile issues — same-sex marriage, the Dream Act and redistricting — before Maryland voters. The laws were all upheld at the ballot box.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Calvert Democrat, has said he would bring a death-penalty repeal bill to the Senate floor, as long as Mr. O'Malley can get the votes to pass it. But he said he also expects opponents to petition for a referendum if it's passed.
"I don't fear the judgment of the people of Maryland," Mr. O'Malley said when asked about the possibility of a referendum.
In Maryland, five people have been executed since 1976 and five people are currently on death row.
Mr. O'Malley pushed for a death penalty repeal during the first year of his first term, in 2007. He backed another effort in 2009, when a bill to ban capital punishment was rejected by the state Senate. The state's death-penalty laws last underwent reform in 2009 after the failed repeal attempt, with legislators instead passing a compromise that allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty only in first-degree murder cases in which there is biological or DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or conclusive video evidence.
A state-appointed committee recommended in 2008 that Maryland abolish the death penalty because of evidence of racial and socioeconomic disparities, high legal costs, and emotional stress on victims' families caused by lengthy appeals processes. Despite the recommendations, recent polling suggests that, if passed by the General Assembly and taken to referendum, supporters of a death-penalty repeal would still have to convince some Marylanders.
Survey results released Monday by pollster OpinionWorks show that a plurality of respondents statewide support capital punishment, 48 percent to 42 percent who oppose. Respondents in Montgomery County favored repeal by 49 percent to 41 percent, Prince George's County respondents narrowly opposed repeal, by a margin of 42 percent to 41 percent. Baltimore voters opposed repealing the death penalty, 52 percent to 36 percent. More conservative areas of the state, like Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, also opposed repealing the death penalty by significant margins.
The poll of 800 voters was conducted Dec. 28 and Jan. 2 and had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.
Delegate Neil C. Parrott, Washington Republican who helped spearhead referendum efforts last year, said he thinks it's too early to talk about a possible referendum on the death penalty. But he pointed to the Beltway sniper killings as an example where the death penalty — which was applied in 2009 in Virginia to John Allen Muhammad, the mastermind of the shootings — was used correctly.
"Some crimes are so heinous that there is no acceptable punishment other than capital punishment," Mr. Parrott said.
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