Monday, 12 March 2007

Observers: Md. governor’s stand vs. death penalty a smart move

Observers: Md. governor’s stand vs. death penalty a smart move

ANNAPOLIS — Although legislation to repeal Maryland’s death penalty law faces an uncertain future, some political observers say Gov. Martin O’Malley’s strong support of the ban is a smart move politically, even if the repeal doesn’t pass or a compromise is reached.

Zach Messitte, a professor of political science and Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, St. Mary’s College, said O’Malley’s willingness to testify in support of a repeal shows voters he’s willing to take a stand on a tough political issue, while putting off difficult decisions about the state’s looming budget deficit and slot machine gambling.

“He’s out in front on it,” Messitte said. “Therefore, he doesn’t have to be out in front on taxes, slots or whatever else.”

Also, while O’Malley, a Democrat, isn’t the first governor to speak out against capital punishment, he’s still “ahead of the curve” to an extent, Messitte said.

“I think it is a smart political move,” Messitte said. “You have seen several governors around the country who have done this over the years.”

Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, said challenges to the lethal injection procedure that have come up in Maryland and other states have created a climate in which more people are asking questions about capital punishment. That, he said, has made the political waters calmer for speaking out against it.

“I think this is an issue on which attitudes are in flux right now,” Crenson said.

Last month, a statewide poll released by the Maryland Catholic Conference found that 56 percent of Maryland residents support capital punishment, but it also found that 61 percent consider life in prison without parole to be an acceptable substitute to execution. The poll, which included 625 registered voters, was conducted Feb. 6 to Feb. 8 by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. It had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

The Maryland measures being considered now would replace the death penalty with life without possibility of parole.

By dealing with capital punishment early on in his administration — and while a de facto moratorium is in place because of a December Court of Appeals ruling — O’Malley can confront the issue in an abstract way, instead of confronting a specific case, Crenson said. O’Malley currently is not facing a decision on whether to sign a death warrant, for example, nor is he being asked to grant clemency.

“It’s far easier for him to do this at a general level than to try to manage it through the specifics of a particular case,” Crenson said.
If the time comes to consider signing a death warrant, O’Malley said he would “decide each case on its merits.”

“Unfortunately it still is the law, and so I’d have to decide each case on its merits under the law, and I have not done any research on who’s on death row and the merits of their case to be able to tell you hypothetically on each one,” O’Malley said. “But I’d have to apply the facts of the law and move accordingly.”

There are six men on Maryland’s death row.

O’Malley, a Roman Catholic, has personally opposed capital punishment for years, but the issue did not come up often during his campaign against former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican death penalty supporter who lifted a moratorium on executions put in place by his predecessor, Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat.

“This was not an issue that many people were asking about, quite frankly, in the course of the campaign and it didn’t come up a lot in questionnaires and the like, so it really was not one of the top ten legislative priorities,” O’Malley said in a recent interview.

But when lawmakers in the Maryland House and Senate introduced measures calling for a repeal, O’Malley decided to take the rare step for a Maryland governor of testifying before the House and Senate in favor of the bills.

“It really wasn’t until the repeal bills were put in that we realized, well, we’re going to have to say something on this,” O’Malley said. “I felt compelled to say something on it, because it’s an important issue.”

Because the measures are facing some opposition, O’Malley said he is open to a compromise. One possibility being discussed would be to narrow the kinds of crimes under the law that would make someone eligible for the death penalty, such as reserving it for someone who killed a law enforcement officer.

Under Maryland law, there are 10 aggravating circumstances under which the state can seek the death penalty.

Support in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee appears to be split, with a potential swing vote in the hands of Sen. Alex Mooney, R-Republican, who has said he would consider supporting the bill in committee with amendments. He has voiced reluctance to end the death penalty entirely.

In the House, supporters hope the measure has better chances.

Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, is still hopeful the House measure will be voted out of committee and get to the floor without compromise. Rosenberg said he believes a majority of members on the House Judiciary Committee will support the repeal, and he said “we’re still working to get the majority in the House floor for repeal.”

But even if a compromise is reached, Crenson said it will be positive for O’Malley politically. That’s because it would show he is willing to work with legislators — an area of governing where Ehrlich, his Republican predecessor, was often criticized.

“And that, I think, many people will find to be a refreshing change,” Crenson said.

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