Shore Officials Oppose Death Penalty Repeal

BERLIN — As expected, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley this week announced his latest plan to introduce legislation to repeal the death penalty in Maryland and believes he has the votes this time in the General Assembly, but the bill will have little support from lawmakers on the lower shore.

On Tuesday, O’Malley held a press conference in Annapolis presenting his plan to introduce legislation to abolish capital punishment in Maryland. A similar effort in 2009 did not pass and resulted in a compromise of sorts that limited the use or threat of the death penalty. This year, however, the governor believes he has the votes to repeal the death penalty in Maryland.

“It would seem to me that, especially in tough times, if there is something that we’re doing through our government that is expensive and does not work, than we should stop doing it,” O’Malley said. “The death penalty is expensive and does not work. And for that reason alone, I believe we should stop doing it.”

In essence, Maryland stopped “doing it” years ago. The last execution in Maryland was Wesley Baker in 2005. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was up to the individual states to determine their own policies on the death penalty. The Maryland General Assembly reinstated the death penalty by legislation in 1994 and since then, just five convicted felons have been put to death.

The first convicted murderer put to death by lethal injection after Maryland reinstated the death penalty had direct ties to Worcester County. John Thanos, whose two-state murder spree in 1990 started with a shooting just off Route 50 in Whaleyville, was put to death in 1994.

O’Malley said on Tuesday he believes the death penalty is not a deterrent for violent crime.

“The death penalty does not work in terms of preventing violent crime and the taking of human life,” he said. “If you look over 30 or 40 years, the death penalty was on the books, and yet Baltimore still became the most violent and addicted city in America. Having the death penalty on the books did nothing to keep the homicides from rising.”

While O’Malley believes he has the votes this time to push through the repeal, those votes will not be coming from a pair of lower shore lawmakers.

Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) and Republican Mike McDermott (R-38B) each said this week they continue to support the death penalty. McDermott said the debate is somewhat moot because of the infrequency with which Maryland utilizes the death penalty now.

“It’s a funny thing in Maryland to debate something we never do,” he said. “The state hasn’t put anybody to death in nearly a decade and there are only five inmates on death row right now. Basically, there’s a moratorium in place right now because the state doesn’t have the procedures in place, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.”

A common point made by advocates of repealing the death penalty is the chance of putting to death a wrongly convicted inmate and there appears to be some merit to the argument. Since the Supreme Court ruling in 1978, 11 inmates have been removed from death row in Maryland for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the accused had their sentences overturned on appeal and were sent back to prison for life without parole. A few were totally exonerated including a case in 1993 when an inmate was determined to be innocent by DNA evidence. Nonetheless, lower shore lawmakers believe there are safeguards against wrongly putting to death a convicted felon.

“I appreciate those who advocate on behalf of those unjustly convicted, but we have bent over backwards to make sure we don’t put somebody to death by accident,” said McDermott. “There are safeguards in place to ensure that.”

Like McDermott, Mathias continues to be an advocate for keeping the death penalty.

“I support the death penalty,” he said. “I do believe there are cases that warrant the use. In extreme cases, we can incarcerate them for life, but we can’t be sure they won’t kill again. We have to be concerned for our correctional officers.”

McDermott said without the death penalty, there would be no hammer to hang over the heads of the state’s most violent criminals.

“I’d still like to have the option open,” he said. “Without a mechanism in place, or the threat of the death penalty, I’m frankly fearful for our correctional officers. We need to have that option.”

Mathias said the death penalty is an important judicial tool.

“I do believe it’s a deterrent,” he said. “I also believe it’s a tool a prosecutor needs. Without the threat of the death penalty, it could be difficult to get sentences of life without parole.”