Maryland's death penalty will be wiped from the books in October now that efforts to reinstate capital punishment have fallen short.
The petition drive to halt repeal of the death penalty ended Friday afternoon, when organizers said they could not collect enough signatures to go forward. Meanwhile, advocates who worked for nearly a decade to end capital punishment in Maryland celebrated the final landmark in their victory.
The failure is the first for MdPetitions.com, which had successfully forced a statewide vote on three laws, including same-sex marriage, in 2012. The group said that it encountered a disillusioned electorate and that the death penalty had not inspired the passion necessary to meet Maryland's high bar for a referendum.
"The groundswell of support across the state just wasn't there," said Del. Neil Parrott, a Western Maryland Republican and chairman of MdPetitions.com.
Standing before boxes of about 15,000 signatures — at least 3,500 fewer than needed by midnight — Parrott and Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger announced that they were abandoning the petition drive to put Maryland's death penalty repeal law before voters in November 2014. The group had to give 18,579 valid signatures to election officials by the end of the day, the first hurdle in collecting more than 55,000 signatures to send the law to referendum.
Shellenberger said his office has one death penalty case pending, and he will now reconsider whether to pursue capital punishment.
"I do think that one day, we're going to wake up and something really, really bad is going to happen," the veteran prosecutor said. "We're going to wonder why we don't at least have this as an option."
The General Assembly voted in March to end the death penalty, replacing it with life without parole as the ultimate sentence in the state. When Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the law May 2, Maryland became the sixth state in as many years to repeal the death penalty.
Repeal advocates argued that capital punishment is expensive, ineffective at deterring crime and unfairly imposed. Supporters of capital punishment said it is needed for heinous crimes and to give prosecutors a bargaining tool.
A coalition of prosecutors joined Parrott's group in launching the unsuccessful effort to let voters decide whether to keep the death penalty. Friday's announcement means nothing stands in the way of the repeal taking effect Oct. 1.
Advocates of repeal said the drive's failure indicates that capital punishment lacks public support.
"To be reaffirmed by the public, and know that justice is served, is wonderful," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who worked for seven years to persuade his colleagues to repeal the death penalty. "This is the most profound thing I will ever do."
Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who lead his chamber's floor debate on repeal, said lawmakers were emboldened after voters upheld same-sex marriage and in-state tuition for immigrants who are in this country illegally when those laws were petitioned to referendum on last fall's ballot. Friday's announcement that organizers could not find enough votes to send the death penalty question to voters, Raskin said, further proves that Marylanders back the legislature.
"The defenders of the death penalty promised retaliation, but their bark was worse than their bite," Raskin said.
The law does not change the sentences of the five men on death row in Maryland. O'Malley has said he will consider their fates on a case-by-case basis, though he has set no timetable to do so. All men were convicted of murders, some dating to the 1980s. Maryland's last inmate was executed in 2005 under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Maryland has had a de facto moratorium since 2006 when a court struck down the rules under which executions were carried out.
Shellenberger said that while collecting signatures, he faced apathy from death penalty supporters who believed the legislature would find a way to outlaw capital punishment anyway. And people were mindful that voters in November upheld same-sex marriage and the other laws that were petitioned to referendum.
"I think we had a lot fewer people who were enthusiastic about this process because they perceived it as being unsuccessful the last time," Shellenberger said.
Jane Henderson will now be out of a job as executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, a post she's held for more than a decade, and she said she couldn't be happier.
"It's final — we're thrilled," Henderson said. "We can move ahead. It's time to move on."
Gun control petitions
Opponents of Maryland's new gun control law had until midnight Friday to meet the first challenge in petitioning the legislation to referendum — turning in 18,579 signatures of registered voters to elections officials in Annapolis. The group gathering signatures did not say Friday how many they had collected. The National Rifle Association did not support the petition effort, saying it will challenge the law in court.