A Governor Stands Up
And Maryland's death penalty gets a powerful foe.
Thursday, February 1, 2007; Page A14
ABOLISHING Maryland's death penalty did not figure in Martin O'Malley's successful campaign for governor last year or in his announced agenda for this year's session of the state legislature. So the path of least resistance would have been for him to say nothing, or very little, in response to opponents of capital punishment, who are clamoring for its repeal. Instead, he has joined their fight. In doing so he has lent his fledgling administration a sense of purpose and moral clarity.
The governor, who has long opposed capital punishment, could probably have achieved his policy goals by doing nothing. In December, Maryland's Court of Appeals effectively halted executions by ruling that the state's procedures for lethal injections were adopted without adequate legislative oversight. In the absence of a legislative remedy to restart what are already infrequent executions, Mr. O'Malley could have sat back and enjoyed four years as governor without having a single death warrant land on his desk for signature.
Instead, he has joined growing calls around the country to do away with state-sponsored killings, which have been shown repeatedly to be error-prone with regard to guilt or innocence; wildly expensive to prosecute; racially tilted against killers whose victims are white; arbitrarily pursued depending on jurisdiction; and ineffective as a deterrent to the most vicious crimes. Across the country, Americans' queasiness with capital punishment has grown steadily, particularly as DNA evidence has pointed to mistaken convictions. The number of executions carried out last year (53) was the lowest in a decade. While most citizens still approve of capital punishment, the support has dwindled. Recent polls suggest a majority would prefer the option of imposing a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole.
That is what a commission of law enforcement officials and victims' representatives has recently advocated in New Jersey, and that is what would be achieved in Maryland by a bill sponsored by state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, Baltimore Democrats. Mr. O'Malley is on record as saying that he favors the bill and will work for its passage.
Although his governorship is just a few weeks old, Mr. O'Malley showed himself as a candidate and a governor-elect to be cautious and reluctant to get out in front on issues. That's not necessarily a bad thing in a public official feeling his way in a new job. But by setting down his marker on the death penalty, on whose merits Marylanders remain divided, Mr. O'Malley has shown political courage and a glimpse of the gritty resolve that he claimed as his legacy as mayor of Baltimore.