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Capital punishment gets a new lease on life

Death-penalty supporters on Friday launched an online petition drive to preserve capital punishment in Maryland, one day after Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the legislation to abolish it as of Oct. 1.

If the drive to put the question on the ballot is successful, implementation would be delayed at least 13 months, until the November 2014 election.

“The people of Maryland should decide if the death penalty should be on the books here in Maryland,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger.

“The ultimate punishment should be available for people who commit the ultimate crime,” he added. “We save it for the worst of the worst.”

Under Maryland State Board of Elections regulations, referendum supporters must get the signatures of at least 18,579 registered Maryland voters by the end of May, and a total of 55,736 by the end of June, to get the issue on the ballot.

The death penalty would remain an option while the petition drive is alive.

Sen. James Brochin, another death-penalty supporter, said Maryland residents — not the General Assembly — should have the final say on capital punishment.

“We need to have a vigorous debate on this,” added Brochin, D.-Baltimore County.

The online petition can be found at MDPetitions.com, a website and organization led by Del. Neil C. Parrott, who supports the death penalty for terrorists who kill and other instances of cold-blooded murder.

“What if it was the Baltimore Marathon bombing?” Parrott said, drawing a local analogy to the terrorist attack last month that killed three and injured more than 100 during Boston’s annual running race.

Parrott, R-Washington, said he has made “What if?” the rallying cry for the petition drive.

The slogan is reminiscent of arguments death-penalty opponents made during the past General Assembly session in asking legislators how they would feel if an innocent person were wrongly convicted and executed.

Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, vowed to defeat the referendum effort with the help of a “broad coalition,” including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and religious organizations.

“We knew it was a possibility,” Henderson said of the petition drive. “If we have to fight it, we’ll fight it and we’ll win.”

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, who led the fight in the Senate to abolish capital punishment, said supporters of the death penalty will lose if the issue gets to referendum.

Raskin cited last year’s defeat at the polls of efforts to overturn laws permitting same-sex marriage and expanding eligibility for in-state tuition rates to undocumented residents who graduated from public high schools and whose parents paid taxes here.

“I believe that the majority that defended marriage equality and the Dream Act will reassemble to defend this legislation” to abolish capital punishment, said Raskin, D-Montgomery.

The senator added that Maryland voters might be growing weary of petition drives, which have become far easier to mount with electronic access to the necessary forms.

“There are a lot of people … who just don’t like the constant second-guessing and Monday-morning-quarterbacking of everything the General Assembly does,” Raskin said. “We should not be turning the clock back and constantly fighting the same battles.”

But Shellenberger said the fight to preserve the death penalty will succeed because he and other supporters of capital punishment will not be satisfied with merely getting the issue on the ballot. Rather, the campaign to “repeal the repeal” will continue even after the necessary signatures have been received, he added.

“You can’t take your foot off the gas,” Shellenberger added. “There needs to be a political campaign.”

Five men are on Maryland’s death row; the repeal law does not affect their status. The last person to be executed by the state was Wesley Eugene Baker, in December 2005.