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O’Malley pushes death penalty repeal

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley urged legislators Thursday to abolish capital punishment in Maryland, saying the ultimate punishment does not deter heinous crimes and carries the risk that a wrongly convicted person could be executed.

Stacey Mayer, Chief Legislative Officer with the Office of the Governor, speaking with Gov. Martin O'Malley in the Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing on the death penalty.

“The death penalty is not a deterrent and it does not work,” O’Malley told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “There is no way to reverse a mistake if we should execute an innocent person.”

But the chief prosecutors in Baltimore and Harford counties called capital punishment just for cold-blooded killings and those involving an additional violent crime, such as rape.

The death penalty should be “reserved for the worst of the worst” crimes, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger told the committee. “Are we really going to walk away from the death penalty for individuals who perform such heinous acts?”

Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said without the death penalty, a criminal who violently rapes someone would have no reason to spare the victim’s life. The attacker would already be facing life in prison for the rape and thus could not face a harsher punishment for killing the only witness against him.

“Do not deprive [prosecutors] of this very appropriate response to the most heinous crimes,” Cassilly told the committee.

The dueling testimony came as lawmakers consider legislation, introduced at O’Malley’s request, to repeal Maryland’s death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. Maryland is one of 33 states that have capital punishment.

Measures to repeal Maryland’s death penalty have been introduced in each of the past nine General Assembly sessions. The closest the effort came to passage was in 2009, when lawmakers ultimately approved a law limiting the death penalty’s application to cases when the murderer’s conviction is based on DNA evidence; a videotaped, voluntary confession; or a video recording that conclusively links the defendant to the murder.

In more recent years, repeal efforts have failed by one vote to clear the Judicial Proceedings Committee. But this year might be different.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, the chief sponsor of the 2009 bill and a no vote on the Senate panel in past years, is being wooed by repeal supporters to lift his opposition in committee and permit a vote by the full Senate.

The Baltimore County Democrat declined to state which way he was leaning this year, saying during Thursday’s hearing that he is “very conflicted’ on the death penalty.

Shellenberger, in an apparent plea to Zirkin, urged committee members who have voted against repeal to “hold on to your convictions.”

NAACP President Benjamin T. Jealous, who joined O’Malley in calling for repeal, called the death penalty a “lie” because it does not serve as the crime deterrent its supporters say it does.

“Our country is better than the death penalty,” Jealous told the committee. “The death penalty has no place in a civilized society.”

But Shellenberger said capital punishment is a part of a just legal system.

“I don’t believe in vengeance,” he said “I don’t believe in retribution. I believe in justice.”

O’Malley and Shellenberger also testified Thursday at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the repeal legislation.

In addition to abolishing the death penalty, the measure — Senate Bill 276 and House Bill 295 — would require the state to earmark $500,000 annually to aid family and friends of homicide victims.

Committee members who support capital punishment said the victim assistance funding provision should be excised from the bill and introduced as separate legislation to enable Maryland voters to decide the death penalty’s fate in a 2014 referendum if the repeal effort passes.

The members noted that the Maryland Constitution prohibits legislation that appropriates funds from being challenged in a referendum.

Maryland has been under a de facto death penalty moratorium since December 2006, when the state’s top court — the Court of Appeals — invalidated Maryland’s execution protocols because they had not been adopted in compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act.

The moratorium will stand unless the governor adopts new protocols following the stringent APA requirements, or the legislature amends the APA to exempt execution protocols.

Five men are currently on Maryland’s death row. The last person to be executed by the state was Wesley E. Baker in December 2005.