If the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination had an odor, Marylanders would be smelling it now. Suddenly, abolition of Maryland's death penalty has become one of Gov. Martin O'Malley's top legislative priorities, even though there have been only five executions in the state in the last 50 years, and none since 2005. Five inmates remain on death row, but Maryland has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in place since 2009. It is in no danger of becoming another Texas, which executed 15 inmates in 2012 alone.
Even though the death penalty is not a pressing problem, the governor himself appeared before both chambers last Thursday to make the case that capital punishment -- which has been on the lawbooks since 1689 -- should be repealed and replaced with life without parole, even for the "worst of the worst" criminals.
Joined by a group of religious, political and civil rights leaders, including Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, O'Malley persuasively argued that capital punished does not act as a deterrent to crime. He correctly pointed out that fear of the death penalty did "absolutely nothing" to prevent Baltimore, a city he once ran as mayor, from "becoming the most violent and drug-addicted city in America." The governor also told lawmakers that capital punishment cases cost taxpayers three times more to prosecute -- so yes, Maryland's spendthrift governor has finally found one area where he supports economizing.
The best argument for repeal is that the government often convicts the wrong person. O'Malley pointed to a "chilling" finding by the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment: One out of every 8.7 Americans sentenced to death was later found innocent. The first was Kirk Bloodworth, who spent two years on Maryland's death row for the 1984 rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl, but was later exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing.
However, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and relatives of murder victims testified against eliminating the death penalty, warning that it would put the lives of crime victims and correctional officers in danger and tie the hands of prosecutors, who find it useful in extracting guilty pleas from suspects.
Maryland's current moratorium -- which preserves the death penalty only in theory and not in practice -- is an inelegant but pragmatic solution to the valid issues raised by both sides of this controversial debate. Sometimes, the best course of action is to do nothing.