Maryland votes to abolish the death penalty

Today the Maryland House of Delegates followed the lead of the state Senate and passed the death penalty repeal bill. The bill now goes to Governor Martin O’Malley who almost certainly will sign it, making Maryland the 18th state to abandon capital punishment, and the 6th state in 6 years to join the abolition club.

This has been a decades-long campaign, stretching back to the 1980s, in which Amnesty – in coalition with other groups – has always played an integral part. For me personally, it caps 6 years of thoroughly meaningful and rewarding work with a terrific collection of Amnesty staff and activists and coalition partners.

Since I came on staff here in 2007, two campaigns have defined my work. This Maryland effort, and the Troy Davis campaign. The Davis campaign wasn't successful in preventing his execution, but it did galvanize the death penalty abolition and wider social justice movements. The impact was particularly acute here in the D.C.-Maryland area. That renewed energy was brought this year to Annapolis and without a doubt helped push death penalty repeal to this point.

The road to abolition

Maryland reinstated its death penalty in 1978, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court reauthorized capital punishment in its 1976 Gregg v. Georgia decision. Maryland carried out its first execution under the new law in 1994, and its last (of five total) in 2005. All five of those executed, and all five who currently sit on death row, were sentenced to die for killing white victims, despite the fact that over three quarters of murder victims in Maryland are people of color.

In addition to this obvious racial disparity, the exoneration of Kirk Bloodsworth, wrongly sentenced to death and finally freed by DNA testing in 1993, added to growing doubts about capital punishment in Maryland. Over the years, the excessive financial costs of the death penalty became apparent, and when a 2008 study commission found, by a 20-1 vote, that the death penalty is actually “more detrimental” for victims’ families, the call for abolition became louder. With a few exceptions, polls in recent years have shown that majorities of Marylanders accept or, when asked, prefer life without parole over the death penalty.

A new law passed in 2009 to restrict death penalty cases to those in which there is DNA evidence or a video-taped confession was undermined by the fact that DNA testing can be botched and false confessions are an all too common occurrence. A majority of legislators began to believe that the only way to ensure that no one is executed for a crime he didn’t commit was to end executions.

Also contributing to this moment was the strong engagement of Governor O’Malley during this year’s session. You can thank him for his efforts, and also urge him to commute the five remaining death sentences so that Maryland can be completely free of capital punishment.

You can also remind Governor O’Malley that he and others have pledged to include funds to support murder victims’ families in the state’s budget this year. This was originally a provision of the repeal bill, but was removed during Senate committee deliberations.  Please call on the Governor to ensure that this funding is restored.

And stay tuned. Next week, activists in two more states – Colorado and Delaware – will begin their repeal campaigns in earnest.

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