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Death-penalty supporters may fall short in referendum effort

Death-penalty supporters said Thursday that they may have to abandon their effort to bring to referendum a challenge to a law that will abolish capital punishment in Maryland on Oct. 1.

Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the death penalty repeal into law on May 2, and it will take effect on Oct. 1.

The supporters, including Frederick County’s top prosecutor, are far short of the 18,579 signatures of registered Maryland voters that they need by 12 a.m. Saturday to keep alive their effort to bring the issue of the death penalty’s future to a popular vote. They would need a total of 55,736 signatures by the end of June to get the issue on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot under Maryland State Board of Elections regulations.

“We are below the amount of signatures that we need,” Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith said Thursday, adding that a last-day push for more is continuing.

The petition drive was launched May 3, the day after Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law the bill to repeal the death penalty.

The drive has been conducted largely online at the website.

Del. Neil C. Parrott, who heads, has called a news conference for Friday in Frederick to announce the fate of the petition effort. The Washington County Republican did not return telephone messages seeking comment Thursday.

In launching the petition drive on May 3, Parrott called the death penalty appropriate for terrorists who kill and other instances of cold-blooded murder.

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

In that vein, Parrott said he made “What if?” the rallying cry for the petition drive.

The slogan was 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.

State Sen. James Brochin, who joined Parrott at the Baltimore news conference announcing the launch, said Thursday that the challenge of getting signatures has been great because death-penalty supporters are scattered throughout the state and are less united than the opponents of same-sex marriage who were able to bring that issues to the ballot but lost at referendum last year.

“It’s harder to know where to get signatures,” said Brochin, D-Baltimore County. “It’s a tougher effort.”

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, who led Senate floor debate in favor of repeal, said the petition drive’s expected failure is the result of “a general referendum fatigue” among the Maryland electorate.

“It’s time for the state to move on to other pressing public issues” such as jobs and the economy, said Raskin, D-Montgomery. “We’re not going to move forward as a state if we’re constantly going to be replaying the death penalty.”

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, another staunch death-penalty opponent, said the petition effort’s collapse would be “really cool.”

“Democracy is what it is, and they don’t have the signatures,” said Gladden, D-Baltimore city. “The community is just not supporting death sentences.”

She noted that the law ending the death penalty expressly provides that the ultimate punishment in Maryland will be life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“We can do reasonable punishment without killing people,” Gladden said. “There are reasonable alternatives to death, and I think people have seen them.”

As executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, Jane Henderson lobbied legislators to abolish the death penalty. On Thursday, she said she is prepared to fight if the petition drive continues.

Henderson added that she also knows what she will do if the drive fails.

“It will finally be over, and I can focus on finding a new job.”