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O’Malley’s decision final chapter in death penalty debate?

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s decision to shut down Maryland’s death row also could serve as the death knell for capital punishment in the state, supporters said Wednesday.

“The death penalty is dead and buried in Maryland,” said Jane Henderson, a board member and former executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.

Lawmakers, with O’Malley’s support, repealed the death penalty for future criminal cases in 2013. And outgoing Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler announced in November that his office concluded the state can no longer carry out the death penalty against the four remaining inmates facing lethal injection.

Still, the fates of those men – Anthony Grandison, Vernon Lee Evans Jr., Jody Lee Miles and Heath William Burch – could have remained in limbo through legal appeals until O’Malley on Wednesday said he will commute the sentences to life without the possibility of parole.

“In my judgment, leaving these death sentences in place does not serve the public good of the people of Maryland – present or future,” O’Malley said in a statement. “Gubernatorial inaction – at this point in the legal process – would, in my judgment, needlessly and callously subject survivors, and the people of Maryland, to the ordeal of an endless appeals process, with unpredictable twists and turns, and without any hope of finality or closure.”

The sense of finality is what the family of Edward J. Atkinson felt after learning of O’Malley’s decision, according to Wicomico County State’s Attorney Matthew A. Maciarello. Atkinson was robbed and murdered on the Eastern Shore in 1997 by Miles, who was put on death row the following year.

“The family is very appreciative of the time and attention the governor has given to this matter,” said Maciarello. “It’s the greatest degree of closure that could be achieved under the circumstances.”

Lawyers for Miles declined to comment Wednesday but provided a letter they sent O’Malley in November in response to news reports the governor, in anticipation of commuting the sentences, was meeting with families of the victims. While acknowledging the death sentence had been a “difficult and trying time for everyone involved,” Miles’ lawyers asked O’Malley to allow their client’s appeal of his sentence to make its way through the legal system. (The Court of Special Appeals heard arguments in Miles’ case in early December but has not issued an opinion.)

“Mr. Miles has expressed extreme remorse for his responsibility in taking the life of Edward Atkinson,” the letter states. “…Every day of his incarceration to date, Mr. Miles has worked to prove that he is capable of rehabilitation and worthy of consideration for parole.”

Lawyers for Burch expressed their client’s remorse in a statement but also praised O’Malley on Wednesday for making a “tough and courageous moral decision.” Burch was sentenced to death for the 1995 murders of Robert and Cleo Davis, two elderly neighbors in Capitol Heights.

“Given that repeal of the death penalty has already occurred in the legislature, it was indeed time that Maryland’s machinery of death was consigned to the history books,” the lawyers said.

Michael Millemann agreed. For 25 years, the University of Maryland law professor represented John Booth-El, who was sentenced to death for the 1983 stabbing deaths of Irvin and Rose Bronstein inside their northwest Baltimore home. Booth-El’s case went to the Supreme Court and his death sentence was overturned three times before being reinstated for the last time in 2003. Booth-El, 60, died in prison of natural causes in April.

“I certainly hope it never comes back,” said Millemann, who has consulted on other death row cases. “The Maryland experience demonstrated the irrationality of the process, and the data show it was not a deterrent.”

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said he was “extremely disappointed” in O’Malley’s decision. Evans and Grandison have been on death row for 30 years for the 1983 contract killings of David Scott Piechowicz and Susan Kennedy in Baltimore County.

“It’s our position that these are valid and justified sentences upheld by appellate courts,” Shellenberger said, referring to Evans and Grandison specifically but also to Miles and Burch. “If jurors pronounce a sentence, it should be carried out.”

Shellenberger said he would “never say never” on whether the death penalty is finished in Maryland and outlined a scenario where it could return, although he hopes he turns out to be wrong.

“We’re going to wake up one day after some horrific crime occurred and we will realize that we don’t have the appropriate sentence,” he said.

The political winds could also change in years to come, Shellenberger added, alluding to incoming governor Larry Hogan’s victory in November. Hogan has said he supports capital punishment but that he would not ask the General Assembly to overturn the repeal.

Marciarello, the top prosecutor in Wicomico County, said he personally supports the death penalty, especially to protect prison guards, but does not see the death penalty returning in the near future.
“The political and legal reality is ‘no,’” he said. But “it’s up to the will of the people,” he added. “People can always change the status quo.”

But Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City, who sponsored the death penalty repeal, said the ban will not be overturned. More and more states and countries have abolished the death penalty, and a key drug used for lethal injection has not been manufactured in the United States for nearly four years, he said.

“It’s not going anywhere,” he said of any potential opposition.

Henderson said her group will be on the lookout for any bills in the General Assembly or movements to reinstate capital punishment.

“The death penalty puts families in this strange, legal suspension when these cases go on and on,” she said. “I hope [O’Malley’s decision] brings closure to the legal process and some solace and peace to the families.”

Ron Boehmer, a spokesman for O’Malley, said the administration will publish a notice of the governor’s intentions in The Daily Record on Monday, which will run for two weeks. The governor will then issue his executive orders changing the sentences between Jan. 19 and Jan. 21, when he leaves office.


About Danny Jacobs

Danny Jacobs is the legal editor at The Daily Record. He previously covered trial courts at the state and local levels and served as web editor.