Thursday, 22 February 2007
O'Malley lobbies for repeal
Governor urges an end to death penalty in Md.
By Jennifer Skalka
Originally published February 22, 2007
Expending valuable political capital early in his term, Gov. Martin O'Malley appeared before two General Assembly committees yesterday to make a forceful call for repealing the death penalty. O'Malley, a Democrat, told lawmakers that the death penalty does not deter crime, carries excessive costs and damages human dignity.
"If the death penalty as applied, my friends, is inherently unjust and without a deterrent value, we are left to ask whether the value to society of partial retribution outweighs the cost of maintaining the death penalty," O'Malley testified to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
"Very mindful of and sensitive to the closure, and in some cases the comfort, that it brings to the unfathomable pain of families who have lost loved ones to violent crime, I believe that it does not."
The repeal's sponsors are hopeful that O'Malley's public lobbying - an unconventional move for a governor not advocating for his own measure - could sway critical votes on the Senate panel and on the House Judiciary Committee, which is also considering the bill.
Maryland lawmakers are wrestling this year with how to respond to a Court of Appeals ruling in December that stated lethal injection procedures should be reviewed by the legislature. The court decision effectively instituted a moratorium on executions until that process is in place.
The ruling leaves lawmakers with a pressing problem - a fact that has forced the governor into the debate earlier than expected. Officials must decide whether to draft the necessary regulations to comply with the Court of Appeals decision, leave a de facto moratorium in place or support a repeal.
Maryland, a Democratic stronghold, would appear to be politically predisposed to a repeal, but with Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in office for the past four years, proposals have stalled in the General Assembly.
Five convicted murderers have been executed in Maryland since 1978.
The battle over the death penalty, once fought more along party lines, has emerged nationally as among the most challenging issues, falling at the sometimes hazy intersection of politics, public policy and religion. In light of increasing evidence of wrongful convictions and, in the case of Florida, a botched execution, at least a dozen states have imposed moratoriums. New Jersey is moving toward a repeal.
"Scientific analysis of evidence has raised serious questions and doubts about the death penalty, and the public senses this concern," said Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. "I think that there's a new mood in the country, and it might not lead to the complete abolition of the death penalty, but it's clear that government officials are taking a more cautious approach."
Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, said O'Malley has "political cover" for coming out strongly against the death penalty so early in his term. With several other states struggling to fix their systems or looking to abandon capital punishment altogether, O'Malley is moving with public opinion, Crenson said.
"I don't think he has anything to lose," he said. "His base of support is going to include a substantial majority of people who have doubt about the death penalty."
With O'Malley's backing, advocates for the repeal are hoping momentum is finally on their side.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat sponsoring the House bill, made an impassioned plea to his fellow legislators, saying the time is now to repeal the death penalty.
"It cannot be made right in this state or any other state," he said. "Our legislative colleagues across the country recognize that. It's time, very simply, that we do the same. ... We will cast no more important vote in our careers as public servants than the vote on this bill."
Baltimore Democrat Lisa A. Gladden, the bill's Senate sponsor, distributed hand-held mirrors to her colleagues at the outset of debate to emphasize how deeply personal the issue is for lawmakers.
"This issue transcends race, class and party," she said. "It is about us, and it is about how we look at ourselves in our own personal mirrors."
The governor, reading largely from an op-ed article he wrote that appeared this week in The Washington Post, argued before the Senate and House committees that the death penalty since 1978 has cost the state about $22.4 million more than the cost of life imprisonment. That money, he said, could have paid for an additional 500 police officers or drug treatment for 10,000 addicts.
"Unlike the death penalty, these are investments that actually do save lives and prevent violent crime," the governor said.
Advocates for repeal, including seven wrongfully convicted men from across the country, came to Annapolis yesterday on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season of reflection and fasting for Catholics.
Several Catholic lawmakers wore cross-shaped ashes on their foreheads from earlier visits to church. O'Malley's was not visible, but an aide said he had attended Mass in the morning at St. Mary's Church in Annapolis.
The Roman Catholic Church opposes the death penalty.
Sen. Alex X. Mooney - a Frederick Republican whose vote on the Senate committee is expected to determine whether the repeal bill makes it to the floor for debate - is struggling to reconcile his religious and political beliefs.
Mooney posed questions yesterday that hinted at a reluctance to vote for the repeal. He asked Kirk Bloodsworth, a former death row inmate in Maryland who was wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl, whether he would oppose capital punishment if a corrections officer was killed, in situations of multiple murders or if an individual confesses to a crime.
Released in 1993, Bloodsworth, whose face at times turned red and grew contorted as he struggled to hold back tears while he shared his story, told Mooney the death penalty amounts to letting criminals "off the hook."
Bloodsworth also said that the conviction of just one innocent man indicates a flawed system. He said that if he, an honorably discharged Marine Corps veteran, could wind up on death row, anyone can.
"E Pluribus Unum," he said, beginning to weep as he quoted the country's motto. "From many, one."
Ray Krone, who spent 10 years in prison in Arizona for the brutal stabbing of a cocktail waitress before he was cleared, told the Senate committee that the death penalty system failed him and his family. Branded the "snaggletooth killer," he spent two years on death row.
"I'm a death row survivor," he said, gripping the lectern. "I was that monster, that animal that people wanted to kill."
Those testifying for the repeal included advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, and several officials, including former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey and Stuart O. Simms, a former state Cabinet secretary.
Opponents of the repeal argued that the victims of violent crimes deserve justice and that putting a person to death ensures that a convicted killer will never harm anyone again.
"I believe in the deterrence of one," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, a Democrat. "When you're dealing with the worst of the worst of criminals, sometimes you have to come down to the simplest equations."
Shellenberger also said that Maryland has applied the death penalty judiciously. "We are not Texas. We are thoughtful. We do use our brains," he said.
Texas has carried out more executions than any other state.
Harford County's top prosecutor, Joseph I. Cassilly, said that not all lives are equal. Drug dealers and rapists, he said, are "not worth what someone's life is worth who's doing good."
"There is no justice without the death penalty," Cassilly said. "What coarsens and cheapens a life is when we allow a victim to be murdered, and society does nothing about it."
Near the end of an afternoon of testimony, Mooney said he has never supported an outright repeal of the death penalty but would consider an amended bill that limits the use of the punishment to the most heinous of cases. He also said he would consider voting for the repeal legislation in committee so that the measure could be debated by the full Senate.
"I am still taking it all in," he said. "It will take a couple of days to consider all that's been said. Both sides have made some good points."
Sun reporters Laura Smitherman and Kelly Brewington contributed to this article.