Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday that he will do"everything in my power" to abolish the death penaltyin Maryland this year and for the first time raised thepossibility of allowing voters to decide the divisive issuethrough a constitutional amendment if legislativerepeal efforts fail again.
"It's an issue with grave moral implications, certainlyequal to the slots legislation," O'Malley said, referring tothe casino gambling referendum that was approved by voterslast year. "Maybe that's the way to go."
The governor, a Democrat, said he intends to sponsor a bill to repealcapital punishment, which would put more of his politicalcapital behind the issue. A longtime death penalty opponent, thegovernor has testified in favor of repeal legislation, but he has neveroffered his own initiative. His effort comes a month aftera gubernatorial commission voted to recommendabolishing capital punishment and issued a report outliningwhat it saw as fatal flaws in the application ofthe death penalty.
Some lawmakers and death penalty opponents saidthe administration's sponsorship could be enough tomove a bill out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee,where identical efforts have failed the past two years.Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat who has sponsoredthose bills, said she was pleased when the governor told herWednesday that repeal of the death penalty would be part of his administration'slegislative package.
"Having the governor's power and authority behindit is really going to make a difference," she said.In 2007, Gladden's bill died on a 5-5 vote in thecommittee, of which she is vice chairman. Last year,the bill went nowhere as lawmakers chose instead toestablish the study commission. There's no indicationany committee members have changed positions,so O'Malley and death penalty opponents havehinted they might consider other ways to move legislationforward.
One possibility is a procedural vote to bring thelegislation to the floor for a full House and Senatevote, removing the bill from the Senate committeewhere it has been bottled up in the past. Such a tacticis considered bad form in Annapolis, and SenatePresident Thomas V. Mike Miller warned againstsuch a maneuver yesterday, saying he advised O'Malleyat a breakfast meeting to find another way.
"I encouraged him to work with the members ofthe committee," Miller said.
Miller, who supports the death penalty, said hetold the governor that he would vote to send the issueto referendum through a constitutional amendment.
Even if a repeal passes, the issue might go toreferendum anyway. In Maryland, citizens can attemptto overturn acts of the General Assembly bygathering enough signatures for a ballot question.But other lawmakers -- and some death penaltyactivists -- questioned the idea of a constitutionalamendment.
"I think [legislators] should face this straight onand do their job," said Jane Henderson, director ofMaryland Citizens Against State Executions. "They'rethe ones who gave Maryland capital punishment,and they're the ones who should take it away."
Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne ArundelCounty Republican who voted against the repeal billlast year in committee, said a referendum "wouldnot necessarily be fair." Pointing to slots, he said oneside of the issue spent far more money on advertisingthan the other, possibly skewing the votes.
"I would really, really have to think about that," hesaid of a referendum. He also said O'Malley's sponsorshipthis year "certainly validates that it's an importantissue for Maryland."
Simonaire said he is still studying the issue andwould vote his conscience, even if it means the fullSenate would never get to vote on the death penalty.Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republicanwho has said his Roman Catholic faith gives himdoubts about capital punishment, was the key voteagainst the 2007 repeal bill but pledged yesterday tokeep an open mind as he reads the governor's deathpenalty commission report and listens to witnessesat the committee hearing, which has not been scheduled.
But he said that concern about the way thedeath penalty is applied, "doesn't mean you throw itout altogether" and that he favors executions insome circumstances.
The commission, led by former U.S. Attorney GeneralBenjamin R. Civiletti, cited the possibility of executingan innocent person, huge financial costs, andracial and regional biases as compelling reasons toeliminate capital punishment.
Scott D. Shellenberger, a commission member andBaltimore County state's attorney, wrote a dissentingopinion, signed by seven other members. He saidprosecutors must be able to "reflect the will of thepeople."
A Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies pollshowed that 53 percent of Marylanders favor thedeath penalty.
Since Maryland reinstated capital punishment in1978, five men have been put to death, most recentlyWesley Eugene Baker on Dec. 5, 2005. Five others areon death row, including three men convicted in 1984.State executions have been under an effectivemoratorium since December 2006, when Maryland'shighest court ruled that lethal injection regulationshad not been properly adopted. The Department ofPublic Safety and Correctional Services is still revisingthe protocols.
Death penalty opponents believe this is the yearfor a repeal. A lobbyist for the Maryland CatholicConference vowed he would not "pull any punches.We're going to pull out all the stops."
And Henderson's organization, a coalition of antideathpenalty groups, recently hired D. Robert Entenand Timothy A. Perry to support other lobbyists theyalready have in place. Enten is a longtime fixture inthe State House and one of the highest-paid lobbyistsin Annapolis; Perry is a former chief of staff to Miller.
Gladden has said "the real challenge to the bill isMike Miller," though the Senate president has insistedthat he would not lobby on the bill or interferewith the legislative process. She said that if the repealeffort makes it out of committee, it would likely faceanother tough battle on the Senate floor, where itcould be filibustered. On the House side, it appearsthere are enough votes to get it out of committee andpassed on the floor.
Henderson said Civiletti and O'Malley would be"great champions" of repeal efforts.
"I think the governor will be able to influencesome of the members in the Senate still weighingwhat they're going to do," she said. "This shows thatthey have the confidence that it can move throughthe General Assembly. The governor doesn't put billsin to lose."
Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.