Anti-death penalty advocates Sylvester Schieber, left, his wife, Vicki,… (Patrick Semansky / Associated…)
Maryland is poised to become the 18th state to abolish capital punishment after the General Assembly gave final approval to a bill ending the death penalty.
In an 82-56 vote on Friday, the House of Delegates approved the measure that would end executions in favor of life in prison without parole. The state Senate approved a similar measure last week.
The bill had been strongly backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, who has pledged to sign it. No date has been set for the signing but it will come after the legislative session ends next month, according to the governor’s office.
“With today's vote to repeal the death penalty in Maryland, the General Assembly is eliminating a policy that is proven not to work,” O’Malley said at a joyous news conference broadcast on the state website. The governor has pushed to end the death sentence before, but came up short in 2009.
”Evidence shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent, it cannot be administered without racial bias, and it costs three times as much as life in prison without parole. What's more, there is no way to reverse a mistake if an innocent person is put to death,” he said, outlining some of the principal arguments against the death penalty.
"We also have a moral responsibility to stop doing the things that are wasteful, and that are expensive, and do not work, and do not save lives, and that I would argue run contrary to the deeper principles that unite us as Marylanders, as Americans, and as human beings," O'Malley told the gathered officials and other opponents of capital punishment.
The movement toward abolition was strongly backed by civil rights groups, which condemn what they say is the selective enforcement of the death penalty against persons of color, and by the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes capital punishment on philosophical grounds.
At the news conference, O’Malley was flanked by leaders of groups such as the NAACP and also praised Catholic groups for their efforts on the bill.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said efforts would go on in other states to end capital punishment. This is “what courageous, principled political leadership looks like," he said.
Maryland would become the 18th state to end capital punishment and the sixth in as many years. Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New York and New Jersey have repealed the death penalty since 2007, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Maryland is also the first Southern state to end capital punishment, noted the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
“Maryland would be the first state below the Mason Dixon line to end capital punishment. Like other states that have taken a close look at the practice, lawmakers and citizens in the state have come to the conclusion that the death penalty system is simply unworkable. Chief among the concerns is the risk of executing an innocent person which can never be completely eliminated,” the advocacy group said in a prepared statement.
The debate over capital punishment has mirrored efforts in other states. Proponents of the death penalty argue that the extreme penalty is needed for some crimes that are so heinous that they deserve the ultimate punishment. They also argue that the death penalty serves to deter some criminals.
But opponents have countered that studies minimize the deterrent effect and that the punishment is more often meted out to people of color. Further, improved technology, such as DNA testing, has exonerated some people who have been convicted.
“As the nation’s only organization of exonerated death row survivors, Witness to Innocence applauds the vote by the Maryland House for death penalty repeal,” the group’s executive director David Love said in a prepared statement. “Once again, legislators have been influenced by the power of innocence in the application of the death penalty. This is a great day for Maryland, as it becomes the 18th state to relegate the death penalty to the dustbin of history.”
Maryland currently has five men on death row. Their fates will be decided on a case-by-case basis, O’Malley said. The state's last execution took place in 2005, during the administration of Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
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