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O’Malley slow to commute death sentences

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, an outspoken death penalty opponent considering a 2016 presidential run, has yet to commute the sentences of the state’s five death row inmates despite his role in pushing a repeal of capital punishment that takes effect next month.

The Democrat tried for years to push a repeal through the Legislature but struggled to rally votes in the divided Senate, where the chamber’s president is a death penalty supporter. Now that it’s passed, O’Malley — who signed the measure in May — has said only that he would consider commuting the five inmates’ sentences to life in prison on a case-by-case basis once a request is made. So far, none of the death-row inmates has made one.

O’Malley can commute sentences without a formal request, though he may not need to take the political risk of clearing death row — especially because the state currently does not have procedures in place to carry out an execution. Fellow Democratic presidential prospects have sometimes had to fight the perception they were too soft on crime. In 1992, for example, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a man who had killed a police officer, a move widely viewed at the time as an effort to dispel that image.

Formerly the mayor of Baltimore — a city that struggled for years with a homicide rate among the highest in the nation — O’Malley has long taken a tough-on-crime stance and has been hesitant to reduce criminals’ sentences since becoming governor.

“I can’t say I enjoy this part of the job, but it is part of the job,” O’Malley said last year after commuting sentences for a then-14-year-old boy involved in a fatal robbery and a woman convicted of felony murder in 1984. She drove a man she met in a bar to the scene of a robbery, where her boyfriend shot the man to death.

When asked directly Wednesday if he would commute the death sentences, O’Malley said only that “I don’t have anything to say on that today, and I’ll consider those cases individually whenever those decisions reach my desk.”

Maryland hasn’t executed anyone since 2005, and the state already has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since a 2006 ruling by the state’s highest court. The court said a legislative panel would need to approve protocols for the lethal injection process before an execution would even be possible. And once the repeal takes effect in October, lawmakers would have to approve new death penalty procedures to execute any of the five death row inmates who will remain technically sentenced to die.

In the six states that have outlawed the death penalty in the last six years, no one has been executed since those bans were approved by lawmakers. Former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine signed orders commuting the sentences of eight men who were on death row a day before he signed legislation to ban the death penalty in 2007. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn commuted the death sentences of the 15 men on death row to life in prison without possibility of parole when Illinois officially abolished that state’s death penalty in 2011. Both are Democrats.

In New Mexico, however, former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson declined to commute the death sentences of two men there when his state repealed capital punishment in 2009. They remain on death row.

Any attempt to execute a death row inmate in Maryland would almost certainly be open to lengthy litigation, creating yet another tall hurdle, even for a future governor who could decide to try to move forward with an execution in the overwhelmingly Democratic state.

In Connecticut, which repealed the death penalty last year, the impact on the 11 men who had previously been sentenced to die there is under review by the state’s highest court. In April, a public defender argued that executing an inmate after the state abolished the death penalty would violate his constitutional rights to equal protection and due process.

Death penalty opponents in Maryland hope O’Malley will simply decide to commute the five death sentences to life in prison without possibility of parole. The repeal measure passed this year clearly outlines that sentence as the governor’s prerogative to grant. It was a provision included specifically because three of the five men were sentenced to death when life without parole was not a legal option.

“I don’t think anyone realistically expects anybody is going to be executed,” said Jane Henderson, executive director of Citizens Against State Executions, which has helped lead the effort to ban the death penalty in Maryland for years. “That’s why I think the most efficient thing, the most humane thing, the governor could do right now is just commute the sentences and have it be done with.”

One death row inmate, John Marvin Booth-El, doesn’t want to apply for a commutation at this time, said his attorney, Michael Millemann, who added that it’s up to the governor whether he wants to issue a commutation without a formal request.

In the meantime, Phyllis Bricker — whose parents were killed by Booth-El nearly 30 years ago in Baltimore — says the man should remain on death row. She said she hasn’t come to terms with how long she believes justice has eluded her family, after three separate Baltimore juries sentenced Booth-El to death.

“An awful lot of money is spent trying to get justice, and then it’s decided by someone who is against the death penalty,” Bricker said in a recent interview.