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Maryland’s death penalty is halfway out the door

On Wednesday the Maryland State Senate voted 27-20 on legislation that would end the state’s death penalty.

The House is widely expected to pass the legislation by a significant margin, which will make Maryland the sixth state in six years to end the death penalty.

Maryland’s death penalty is a broken, failure of a system – but it’s not for lack of trying:

For over ten years, Maryland made attempts at “fixing” the system so that an innocent person could not be executed. They had a moratorium, a large-scale study of the death penalty, and sweeping reforms that made Maryland’s death penalty the narrowest in the nation. But in return for all that effort they got only a death penalty system that was more complicated, costly, unfair, difficult on victims’ families – and it still couldn’t guarantee that an innocent person would not be executed (according to a 2012 study by former former prosecutors and other legal experts.)

Finally Maryland the Maryland Senate has said, OK! I get it. Enough is enough. The death penalty can’t be fixed.

I’ve been invested in this issue for a while. I work with Equal Justice USA, which has been coordinating the campaign to end Maryland’s death penalty for years. We sat in the galleries at the Capitol watching the debate with baited breath. And it paid off!

One of my favorite moments from the Senate debate was when Sen. Jamie Raskin shut down opponents of repeal who argued that the death penalty is needed for the “worst of the worst.”

First Sen. Raskin he reminded everyone that the “worst of the worst” theory doesn’t make the death penalty any more accurate. He pointed to the horrendously heinous murder for which Kirk Bloodsworth was sentenced to death. Bloodsworth (who appeared earlier this week on the Colbert Report) was later exonerated by DNA evidence.

Then Raskin said:

Every murder is the worst of the worst if it’s your loved one that was murdered.

People often argue that the death penalty is needed because of victims’ families. But in Maryland – and across the nation – it is precisely those families that have been driving the message that the death penalty is nothing but a cruel hoax that prolongs their pain.

Vivian Penda, whose son Dennis was murdered,
testified before the Maryland Commission to Study the Death Penalty, saying:

The sad reality is that the death penalty handcuffs the surviving families of homicide victims to decades of legal procedures. In the end, the vast majority are re-sentenced to life without parole, which could have been sought at trial.

Bonnita Spikes, whose husband, Michael, was murdered
also testified in Maryland, saying:

Over and over, I have found families in dire need of support and traumatic grief counseling services… Most don’t have any insurance. Nor are they resourceful in knowing who to go and beg for help. I have come to know people, young and old, who have little or no access to professional help coping with their overwhelming loss. For most of these families, the notion of a death sentence for their loved one’s murderer isn’t even a remote thought. They are struggling to hold their households together, to help their families grieve and survive the trauma one day at a time.

It is because of this dire lack of resources that the original version of the repeal legislation (sponsored by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley) included a provision to use the savings from ending the death penalty to improve services to victims families. That provision was taken out because of procedural concerns but the Governor has made a written pledge to write aid for victims’ families in the budget.

We have a very special opportunity in Maryland not just to end the death penalty but to replace it with something better. Helping survivors of homicide rebuild their lives will build safer and healthier communities in Maryland – and pave the way for the nation.

Want to be a part of what’s happening in Maryland?

If you live in Maryland:

Contact your Reps in the State House and urge them to say join the Senate in saying YES to repeal. And ask them to stand with Governor O’Malley in his pledge to use savings from ending the death penalty to help victims’ families.

If you live outside of Maryland:

Email Governor Martin O’Malley to thank him for being the sponsor of the repeal legislation and ask him to use his influence to get the House to say YES also to repeal. And thank him for his pledge to redirect savings from ending the death penalty to improve services to victims’ families. 

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