Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) appeared before House and Senate committees Thursday in the hope of consummating a decade-long campaign to end the death penalty in Maryland, while opponents dug in.
“Every dollar we throw at an ineffective, flawed and arbitrary death penalty is a dollar we are not investing to prevent future murders and save innocent lives,” O’Malley said during a hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on his bill to repeal the death penalty.
“Repealing Maryland’s death penalty could free up million of dollars to allow us to do more of the things that actually work,” he said.
As he spoke, O’Malley was flanked by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) and NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, as well as past sponsor Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Dist. 41) of Baltimore and Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Dist. 25) of Mitchellville.
On a committee of 11, the bill is certain of five votes from senators who are co-sponsoring it. The House of Delegates, which previously has passed a repeal bill, is expected to do so again this year.
Under the proposed legislation, the death penalty would be replaced by life without the possibility of parole. In addition, $500,000 a year would be placed in a fund to assist the victims of violent crimes.
Advocates for and against the bill filled the hearing room Thursday, and many were sent to an overflow room to listen to the testimony.
In 2009, the governor sponsored a similar repeal bill, but it eventually was amended to keep capital punishment but require DNA evidence, a video of the crime or a videotaped confession.
Capital cases cost about $1.9 million to prosecute, while non-capital murder cases cost the state $650,000 on average, according to state legislative analysts.
A state analysis estimated that the repeal will save about $800,000 annually.
The $500,000 appropriation written into the bill raises the question of whether the bill could possibly be petitioned to referendum, as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 31) of Chesapeake Beach has predicted it would be. Appropriation bills generally are not eligible for referendum.
However, the Office of the Attorney General issued an advice letter that said a court likely would find that the appropriation was not the primary purpose of the bill, and therefore it probably would be eligible to go to referendum.
Opponents have argued that the death penalty should be kept for the most egregious crimes, and as a bargaining chip for prosecutors to use in plea deals.
The fear of opponents, said Sen. James Brochin (D-Dist. 42) of Towson, is that prosecutors will have to bargain down to a sentence of life in prison, meaning that even those convicted of the most heinous crimes could be eligible for parole after 25 or 30 years.
Opponents also are skeptical that there will be any actual savings from the repeal.
“In 2009, when you changed the death penalty, and we went from five and six death penalty cases being filed a year, down to two pending in the state of Maryland, not one public defender in the capital litigation division lost their job,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger (D) at the hearing. “Not one penny came out of anybody’s budget and changed anything.”
The effort to get rid of Maryland’s death penalty has been active for more than a decade, and the state hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, when the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the guidelines regulating state executions were unconstitutional.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills is one vote on the committee currently on the fence, he said.
“I’d like to know what the experiences of other states have been,” Zirkin said. “Are these people really getting life without parole in the states where they repealed (the death penalty)?”
In the past decade, five states have repealed the death penalty.
Currently, five inmates are on death row in Maryland. O’Malley declined to comment on whether he would commute the death sentence of those men should the bill pass, only saying that he would weigh each case individually.
Sen. Joseph M. Getty (R-Dist. 5) of Manchester, a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, has introduced a bill that would expand death penalty eligibility to someone convicted of murdering a teacher or professor in the classroom.