Race, Politics and Maryland’s Lingering Death Penalty

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley

Maryland Governor O’Malley Joins Pastors’ March on Annapolis to repeal the death penalty in Maryland in 2009.

While a New York Times editorial highlights the fact that states are “retreating” from capital punishment due to “evolving standards of decency,” very little evolution is evident in Maryland’s political circles, where a stacked Senate committee has for years been the one and only stumbling block to death penalty repeal.

As Gerald Stansbury of the NAACP writes in the Baltimore Sun, 75% of murder victims in Maryland are African American, and almost 50% of murders go unsolved each year. Yet the capital punishment system diverts a massive amount of resources to cases in which the victims were white – all 5 Maryland inmates executed and all 5 current residents of Maryland’s death row were convicted of killing white victims.

There is only one African American on Maryland’s 11 member Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (despite the state’s 31% overall African American population). As Stansbury puts it: “right now, the Judicial Proceedings Committee has jurisdiction over all criminal justice issues but fails to adequately represent those who are affected by these issues the most — people of color.”


Maryland Commission Calls for Abolition

Today, the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment made it official, formally recommending in its Final Report that Maryland repeal the death penalty.

The report’s final recommendation concludes:

“For all of these reasons—to eliminate racial and jurisdictional bias, to reduce unnecessary costs, to lessen the misery that capital cases force victims of family members to endure, to eliminate the risk that an innocent person can be convicted—the Commission strongly recommends that capital punishment be abolished in Maryland.”

The Maryland General Assembly (which created the Commission) will take up the issue when its 2009 session begins about a month from now, on January 14.  The session ends in April, so we should know fairly soon whether Maryland will become the 15th U.S. state to abolish the death penalty.