Today, Gov. Martin O'Malley formally issued notice of his intent to commute the sentences of Maryland's four remaining death row inmates to life without the possibility of parole. While Mr. O'Malley's critics may be quick to sniff out Democratic presidential primary politics at work in this announcement during the final days of his administration, it is the moral choice, the humane choice and the practical choice for him to make.
We have great sympathy for those whose family members were killed by these four men and no particular sympathy for the murderers themselves. But their cases were subsumed in the larger question of whether Maryland should allow capital punishment at all, and as Mr. O'Malley eloquently argued in his years-long effort to repeal it, the death penalty does not make us safer, is prone to bias in its imposition and can never be made completely error-free in its application. The General Assembly's vote to repeal the death penalty did not directly address the cases of the men on Maryland's death row — at the time, there were five, but one subsequently died of natural causes — but it raised the question of whether the state ever could or would exact the punishment.
Some family members of the victims of Maryland's death row inmates lobbied the governor to leave their sentences in place, for symbolic reasons if nothing else. But his action is ultimately the more humane one where their interests are concerned.
Maryland has lacked the regulatory protocols necessary to carry out the death penalty since a court decision in 2006 invalidated the existing ones. Under those circumstances, outgoing Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a death penalty supporter, argued last month before Maryland's Court of Special Appeals that the death sentence is unenforceable because the corrections department no longer had the authority to promulgate new regulations. Mr. Gansler argued that the sentences should be changed to life without the possibility of parole. Whether the court would ultimately have agreed with him or not, the litigation involved could well have dragged on for years more, keeping the victims' families in limbo and forcing them to relive the memories of these horrible crimes.
Mr. O'Malley's action cuts that process short and provides a certainty that the victims' families might otherwise have lacked. It was not altogether certain that all of the death row inmates could have been given sentences of life without the possibility of parole, as that penalty did not exist in Maryland law at the time of some of their crimes. Nor was it guaranteed that a judge would be inclined to give it; attorneys for one of the men actually expressed disappointment at the governor's action because they hoped to secure parole for their client. The governor's action settles the matter once and for all.
The fact that Mr. O'Malley took this action in the last three weeks of his term is a reflection more of his rather contradictory views on crime and punishment than it is an example of a lame duck preempting his successor. Gov.-elect Larry Hogan has complained about some of the last-minute activities of his predecessor, but, tellingly, not this one. He declined to second guess "what is the most difficult decision for this or any governor." (As a side note, it's nice to see that Mr. Hogan, who declined to engage in debates about divisive social issues while a candidate, is sticking to that stance now that he's been elected, even when given a prime opportunity to take a shot at Mr. O'Malley.)