Maryland Gov. Martin OMalley eyes another attempt at repealing capital… (Charlie Neibergall/AP )
Coming off some high-profile wins at the ballot box this month, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is considering another run at repealing the death penalty when lawmakers reconvene in January, aides say. It’s an issue that could add to his progressive legacy.
But even if the law remains on the books, advocates on both sides agree that O’Malley (D) is all but certain to finish his two terms in office without having presided over a single execution of one of the state’s five condemned prisoners.
That’s largely because O’Malley’s administration has yet to implement regulations required for executions to resume, nearly six years after Maryland’s highest court halted use of capital punishment on a technicality. And there’s little reason to believe the politically ambitious governor will do so in his remaining two years, as drug shortages and other factors have complicated the mechanics of lethal injection in other states.
“It’s legislating by inaction,” said Sen. Joseph M. Getty (R-Carroll), a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and an O’Malley critic. “I’m among the members of the General Assembly who would like to see the law followed.”
O’Malley declined to be interviewed for this story, and aides said a decision about whether he will sponsor a death penalty repeal bill will be made in coming weeks. Administration officials responsible for drafting the rules needed for executions to resume offered no timetable for when they might be issued.
“We’re still working on the regulations, still exploring best practices around the country,” said Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “It’s a serious issue, and the department is being extra careful, and that’s obviously taking some time.”
Practices around the country have changed since 2005, when Maryland executed its last prisoner, under the watch of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) — and those changes could make a return to capital punishment in the Free State even more unlikely.
Most of the largest death-penalty states — Virginia being a notable exception — have moved recently from a three-drug cocktail to a single-drug regimen for executions by lethal injection: administering a larger, lethal dose of the sedative that had been used as the first step in the process.
The one-drug method can take longer to take the life of the prisoner, but it is easier to administer and carries less risk of excruciating pain if something goes wrong. It appears to be “the wave of the future,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Nine of the last 10 executions in the United States have used a single drug, according to the center.
For Maryland to move in that direction, it would take action by more than just O’Malley. Maryland law spells out that lethal injections must involve a combination of at least two drugs. Changing to just one would require both a new law and new regulations.
While it’s unclear if there are enough votes to repeal the law altogether, many lawmakers doubt there are enough votes, particularly in the House of Delegates, to adopt a new law that would restart executions.
“I think there’s an impasse,” said Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George’s), a death penalty foe.
The standstill in Maryland, one of 34 states with a death penalty law, comes as the use of capital punishment has declined around the country in recent years. So far, 40 prisoners have been executed this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. That compares to 85 executions nationally in 2000.
While public support for the death penalty has waned, attitudes have not changed nearly as quickly as on same-sex marriage, among the progressive issues O’Malley successfully championed this month at Maryland’s ballot box.
That was most evident in California, where voters rejected by about 6 percentage points an initiative to repeal that state’s death penalty and clear the country’s largest death row.
In Maryland, the Court of Appeals ruled in December 2006, during Ehrlich’s last full month in office, that the state’s death penalty procedures had not been properly adopted, halting executions until new regulations were issued by the administration.
O’Malley focused instead on lobbying the legislature to repeal the death penalty. In high-profile testimony shortly after he took office in 2007, the governor, a Catholic, argued that capital punishment is “inherently unjust,” does not serve as a deterrent to murder and consumes resources that could be better used to prevent crime.
It was not until July of 2009, after the legislature balked at repealing the death penalty for the third year in a row, that O’Malley’s administration proposed regulations that would allow executions to resume.