Maryland's highest court heard oral arguments Thursday in a case that could decide the future of the state's death penalty.

The challenge comes from attorneys for Jody Lee Miles, who was convicted of robbery and murder in 1997. He was sentenced to death the next year, and his continued appeals have failed to get him off death row.

The latest appeal, however, aims high -- Miles' lawyers are arguing that Maryland's death penalty should be illegal under the state Constitution. The reading is based on Article 16 of the state's Declaration of Rights, adopted in 1776, which says that "sanguinary laws ought to be avoided as far as it is consistent with the safety of the State."

"We don't use the term 'sanguinary laws' much today, but at the time of its enactment, its meaning was clear and unambiguous," argued Brian Saccenti, an attorney for Miles. "It meant a law authorizing the imposition of the death penalty."

Saccenti told the Maryland Court of Appeals that the framers of Maryland's constitution meant "the safety of the State" to mean "the safety of the state government."

"There was a need for the death penalty possibly in times of insurrection," he said. "Safety of the state is not synonymous with public safety."

James Williams, senior counsel in the Maryland Attorney General's Office, argued that Saccenti's reading of the Constitution is contradicted by the actions of its authors.

"As governor, one of the seven framers of the Maryland Declaration of Rights actually approved a death sentence for six individuals during his tenure," Williams said. "This was for various crimes relating to breaking into a storehouse and murder by poisoning -- those offenses are not offenses relating in any way to treason."

While Gov. Martin O'Malley has long opposed the death penalty, his office won't say whether he will back a repeal effort in the upcoming legislative session. O'Malley made a similar push in 2009, but that law only added restrictions on when the death penalty could be used.

The state has five inmates on death row and has not executed anyone since 2005.