Despite the high-profile failure of a measure to repeal the death penalty in California, Maryland activists are optimistically looking to the 2013 legislative session to end capital punishment in the state.
“We think this is the year to pass this repeal,” said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.
Henderson cites what appears to be a less-cluttered agenda for the session as reason for optimism.
“We came up short last year largely because there was so much on the agenda,” Henderson said.
Bills to repeal the death penalty have been introduced, and failed to reach the floor of either chamber for a vote, in 10 of the past 12 legislative sessions.
In California, voters on Nov. 6 defeated an initiative to repeal the death penalty, which was instituted in 1978 via another initiative. In 1978, the electorate voted 71.1 percent in favor of the death penalty. This year, 52.3 percent were opposed to the repeal.
“It was a close vote,” Henderson said. “A huge shift in public opinion is shown in that.”
Thirty-four states have the death penalty. In Maryland, five inmates are on death row.
Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Dist. 41) of Baltimore, who has sponsored legislation in the past and reintroduced a bill again this year, is less optimistic about the chance for passage, but said she would be happy just to see both chambers take a vote on the issue.
In past years, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has squashed a repeal bill before it could come to a vote. Gladden, the vice chairwoman of the committee, said that one of the 11 members would have to have a change of heart for the bill to make it to the floor in 2013.
“I think it’s this year or no year,” Gladden said. “But we still need to work with the politics of the House [of Delegates], and on the committee.”
Gladden and House sponsor Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-Dist. 41) of Baltimore, are adding language this year allocating any funds saved in repealing the death penalty to support the families of murder victims. Capital cases, in which prosecutors seek the death penalty, tend to be significantly more expensive to prosecute than noncapital cases.
“If you think about all the hundreds of families in Baltimore who are left when someone is killed, there are not enough resources for those families,” Gladden said. “We can take the money we would have used killing people and put it toward support of victims.”
According to the Office of the Public Defender, capital cases cost about $1.9 million annually in the legal system. The office estimates that the same cases could be tried as noncapital cases for about $650,000.
In 2009, the General Assembly passed legislation that restricted the use of the death penalty to cases with DNA evidence, video confession or conclusive video evidence.
“There are a lot of hoops to jump through,” said Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Dist. 34) of Abingdon, a member of the Senate Judicial Committee who has voted against the repeal bill in the past. “We have safeguards in [the regulations].”
Maryland has held no executions since 2006, when the Court of Appeals ruled that the protocols for lethal injection were adopted incorrectly and are ineffective until either the public weighs in under the Administrative Procedure Act or the General Assembly exempts the protocols from the law.
In 2011, the drug sodium thiopental, an anesthetic used during lethal injections, was removed from the market.
“If you have a death penalty on the books, and duly promulgated regulations, you should be able to move forward on it,” said Sen. Christopher B. Shank (R-Dist. 2) of Hagerstown, who also is on the Judicial Proceedings Committee and opposes repeal. “If the General Assembly needs to makes some clarifications so that can happen, we should do that.”
Jacobs also favors putting new protocols in place to allow executions to proceed.
“One of my constituents was murdered, and the gentleman got the death penalty,” Jacobs said. “To many people, it’s a matter of principle.”