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Maryland governor takes brave step, commutes death sentences

With the death penalty recently banned in Maryland, the governor does the right thing and empties death row

The Maryland state legislature last year ended the death penalty in that state for all future crimes. This morning, Gov. Martin O’Malley decided to extend that reach to the past and commuted the sentences of the last four people on Maryland’s death row to life without the possibility of parole.

It was the right, and just, move to make.

My opposition -- and that of the Times’ editorial board -- to the death penalty is clear and longstanding. It’s a barbaric practice, is imposed arbitrarily, is prone to error, costs taxpayers an inordinate amount of money and, ultimately, is unethical. If it is morally wrong for an individual to kill another individual, then it is wrong for the state -- a collective of individual wills -- to kill an individual.

In Maryland, a legal wrinkle came into play as well. With the legislature’s vote to end the death penalty, the Maryland attorney general doubted the state had the legal authority to kill even those who had been sentenced to death before the law change. At the very least, it created another path of legal challenges for the four condemned men, and thus would have dragged out the process even longer.

Relatives of the victims had told reporters in recent months they opposed O'Malley’s move, which made his decision all the more difficult. And, in reality, brave. In the end, O’Malley said, killing the prisoners serves no public good. From his statement:

“Gubernatorial inaction -- at this point in the legal process -- would, in my judgment, needlessly and callously subject survivors, and the people of Maryland, to the ordeal of an endless appeals process, with unpredictable twists and turns, and without any hope of finality or closure.

“In the final analysis, there is one truth that stands between and before all of us.  That truth is this -- few of us would ever wish for our children or grandchildren to kill another human being or to take part in the killing of another human being. The legislature has expressed this truth by abolishing the death penalty in Maryland.”

As I wrote recently, it’s been a somewhat heartening year for death-penalty opponents. The total number of executions is down, though some of those that were carried out were horrifically botched. High-profile exonerations continue to evidence the fallibility of a justice system in which these sentences, once carried out, cannot be undone. Political pressure has led some states to hide the names of suppliers of execution drugs and take other steps to move executions into the shadows, which should be a troubling development even for pro-death-penalty folks. If the state is going to execute, it should be done with as much openness and accountability as possible.

Polls show continued majority support among voters for keeping the death penalty, but with more states banning it, or under effective moratoriums (like California), it could be that the tide is turning. California voters opted to keep capital punishment on the state books in a referendum in 2012. But that was then.

With the start of the new year, I hope the California Legislature takes a lesson from Maryland and moves to ban the practice here. It won’t be popular, but it’s the right move to make.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

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