It’s Official! Death Penalty Now Abolished In Maryland

Amnesty International activists with Governor Martin O'Malley as he signed the death penalty repeal bill, making Maryland the 18th U.S. state to abolish capital punishment (Photo Credit: Amnesty International USA).

Amnesty International activists with Governor Martin O’Malley as he signed the death penalty repeal bill, making Maryland the 18th U.S. state to abolish capital punishment (Photo Credit: Amnesty International USA).

Maryland’s death penalty repeal bill has now been signed into law. Governor Martin O’Malley today made it official, but there is still work to do. There are still 32 states with capital punishment laws on the books, and there is the federal and military death penalty.

But while the U.S. will not be joining the ranks of abolitionist countries any time soon, the trend is certainly in the right direction, and more individual states will be repealing the death penalty in the near future, perhaps maybe even later this year.

The death penalty has gone from a third-rail political issue to one that is openly debated and hotly contested. As DNA technology has exposed the shortcomings of our judicial system, the public has become increasingly uncomfortable with the irreversible punishment of execution. Five Governors have now signed repeal bills since December 2007, and others, from states like Arkansas, Oregon, New Hampshire and Virginia, have publicly expressed a willingness to do so.

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The Slow Decline Of The Death Penalty Continues

Abdullah al-Qahtani, a Saudi Arabian national, faces imminent execution in Iraq - a sentence based on “confessions” he says were false and obtained through torture.  His story is a perfect illustration of why the death penalty is the ultimate violation of human rights; how ceding to the state the power to kill prisoners is connected to unfair trials, torture, and other abuses.

As Amnesty International’s survey of the death penalty worldwide in 2012 reports, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are both among the top executioners in the world, along with China, Iran, and, yes, the United States. The U.S. was once again the 5th most prolific executioner in 2012, and its death penalty continued to be plagued with bias and error and misconduct by the state (as has been exposed in the Reggie Clemons case).

With 15 executions in 2012, Texas would have ranked 8th in the world, between Sudan and Afghanistan.

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Maryland Must Support Victims’ Families

The abolition of the death penalty in Maryland mattered to many victims’ families; that’s one of the reasons it passed. Also important for these families was the funding originally attached to the repeal bill that would have provided real tangible support for families who lose loved ones to homicide. Support that pays for counseling, that helps mitigate the loss of a breadwinner, or that helps pay for funeral costs.

The funding provision was stripped from Maryland’s repeal bill, but promises were made, by the Governor among others, that the funding would be covered in the state’s budget. Well, the first supplemental budget has been submitted, and funding to support victims’ families is NOT included.

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How I Became a Believer: Amnesty’s Death Penalty Repeal Campaign in Maryland

More have mobilized against the death penalty as more innocents have been exonerated, and as the death penalty abolition movement has gained in strength and sophistication (Photo Credit: Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images).

More have mobilized against the death penalty as more innocents have been exonerated, and as the death penalty abolition movement has gained in strength and sophistication (Photo Credit: Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images).

Brian Evans is the DPAC Acting Director. This blog series tells the story of Amnesty International’s involvement in Maryland’s historic death penalty repeal campaign, featuring the memories and insights of volunteers and staff who played critical roles over more than three decades.

I started working for abolition of the death penalty when I lived in Texas. Texas is not a place where you can ignore capital punishment. They use it, at notorious levels. At the time of my initial involvement, in the late 1990′s, executions and death sentences were surging, both in Texas and across the country.

Little did I know that this was the peak of America’s love affair with the death penalty. As the century turned, as more and more innocents were exonerated, and as the death penalty abolition movement gained in strength and sophistication, support for and use of the death penalty began to decline.

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“Never Accepting Defeat:” Amnesty’s Death Penalty Repeal Campaign in Maryland

New technologies and social media helped Andrea Hall and Kevin Scruggs spread their message and mobilize activists (Photo credit: Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images).

New technologies and social media helped Andrea Hall and Kevin Scruggs spread their message and mobilize activists (Photo credit: Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images).

By Andrea Hall and Kevin Scruggs – current Maryland State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinators (SDPACs)

This blog series tells the story of Amnesty International’s involvement in Maryland’s historic death penalty repeal campaign, featuring the memories and insights of volunteers and staff who played critical roles over more than three decades.

In 2010 and 2011, we were fortunate to land in Maryland’s established and well-organized death penalty repeal coalition, continuing the work that countless others began decades earlier.

When we took on the shared role of State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinators for Amnesty International, we knew that repeal was a realistic goal in the relative short term, and that we had skills and experience to give to this campaign.

It was immensely rewarding to see the system work. Each year, we would employ the same basic strategy: in the spring and summer, we would lay the groundwork for the legislative session. We attended fairs and concerts, knocked on doors, collected signatures, and phone-banked. We handed out flyers, spoke to student groups, wrote newsletters, and marched in rallies. We drove hundreds of miles to reach out to a diverse constituency.

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Building Relationships for Human Rights Impact: Amnesty’s Death Penalty Repeal Campaign in Maryland

Mona was one of the attendees at the Maryland House of Delegates when the legislature voted 82-56 in favor of the death penalty repeal bill (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images).

Mona was one of the attendees at the Maryland House of Delegates when the legislature voted 82-56 in favor of the death penalty repeal bill (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images).

By Mona Cadena (AIUSA MARO Field Organizer and WRO Deputy Director, 1999-2009)

This blog series tells the story of Amnesty International’s involvement in Maryland’s historic death penalty repeal campaign, featuring the memories and insights of volunteers and staff who played critical roles over more than three decades.

I first started working against Maryland’s death penalty as a field organizer for Amnesty International USA’s Mid-Atlantic regional office. I was the AIUSA representative for the Maryland Citizens Against State Executions (MDCASE) coalition. At the time we were working on winning a moratorium on executions so the state would have an opportunity to study the impact of the death penalty and ask important questions: was it applied in a racist manner, geographically arbitrary, and/or too expensive?

Between 1999 and 2003, I worked with Amnesty International volunteers who organized around the state, educated the public and contacted their elected officials. I left the Mid-Atlantic for the West and in 2009 had the great pleasure to be the Amnesty International representative on the victorious New Mexico repeal campaign.

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“I Had No Idea What I Was Getting Into:” Amnesty’s Death Penalty Repeal Campaign in Maryland

After decades of work towards abolition, activists were finally rewarded when the Maryland House of Delegates passed the death penalty repeal bill (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images).

After decades of work towards abolition, activists were finally rewarded when the Maryland House of Delegates passed the death penalty repeal bill (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images).

INTRODUCTION

Last week we had great news – Maryland’s General Assembly voted to repeal Maryland’s death penalty! The bill is now in the hands of Governor Martin O’Malley, who will certainly sign it as one of the most outspoken proponents of the bill.

Amnesty activists celebrated last week – but the victory came after years of hard work. Amnesty International has campaigned for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty since 1977, the same year that the USA restarted executions after 10 years without capital punishment. In 1978, Maryland passed a law reinstating the death penalty. Amnesty volunteers and staff, as part of an increasingly broad and dynamic coalition, have been working to repeal that law for most of its existence. This year, 35 years after its reinstatement, Maryland’s death penalty looks at last to be on its way out.

This week’s special blog series tells the story of Amnesty International’s involvement in this campaign, featuring the memories and insights of volunteers and staff who played critical roles over more than three decades.

Take action to thank Maryland’s leadership for their support of death penalty repeal and urge them to ensure that funding to support victims’ families in included, as originally promised, in this year’s state budget.

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Maryland Legislature Passes Death Penalty Abolition!

Today the Maryland House of Delegates followed the lead of the state Senate and passed the death penalty repeal bill. The bill now goes to Governor Martin O’Malley who almost certainly will sign it, making Maryland the 18th state to abandon capital punishment (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Today the Maryland House of Delegates followed the lead of the state Senate and passed the death penalty repeal bill. The bill now goes to Governor Martin O’Malley who almost certainly will sign it, making Maryland the 18th state to abandon capital punishment (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Today the Maryland House of Delegates followed the lead of the state Senate and passed the death penalty repeal bill. The bill now goes to Governor Martin O’Malley who almost certainly will sign it, making Maryland the 18th state to abandon capital punishment, and the 6th state in 6 years to join the abolition club.

This culminates a decades-long campaign, stretching back to the 1980s, in which Amnesty International – in coalition with other groups – has always played an integral part. For me personally, it caps 6 years of thoroughly meaningful and rewarding work with a terrific collection of Amnesty staff and activists and coalition partners.

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Maryland Senate Endorses Death Penalty Abolition

Maryland Senate death penalty vote

Final Maryland Senate vote on the death penalty bill — 27-20. Photo by Mona Cadena

The Maryland Senate has passed death penalty repeal, by a 27-20 vote, and the bill now moves over to the House with increased momentum.  Excitement at this development is tempered by the fact that desperately needed funding for family members of murder victims was stripped from the bill in committee.

Families of murder victims face many hardships, beyond the shock and grief of the loss itself. Often the lost loved one was the family breadwinner. The costs of travel or missed work time to attend court hearings, as well as expenses for grief counseling and funeral arrangements can add up quickly, particularly for lower income families. They need, and deserve, our support.

The Governor and others have promised to put this funding into the budget that will be considered in March, but the hammering out of budgets is notoriously chaotic, so we will have to be vigilant. There are also no guarantees for death penalty abolition itself, as the vote in the Maryland House is likely to be close. More action is still needed.

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Maryland Death Penalty Repeal Pass First (And Biggest) Test

Amnesty members and others protest the death penalty in Maryland

Amnesty member Stanford Fraser rallies supporters of death penalty repeal in Annapolis with Jane Henderson of MD CASE.

Death penalty abolition in Maryland is on the move!

Maryland’s Senate Judicial Proceeds Committee has voted 6-5 in favor of SB 276, the bill that repeals the death penalty. (Sadly, a provision that would have allocated some funds saved from abandoning capital punishment to support victims’ families was stripped from the bill.)

Passing repeal through this committee was a major hurdle, and one that had proved insurmountable in previous years. But a critical mass of support for abolishing capital punishment has been reached, both across the state and inside Annapolis, and the bill is now headed to the Senate floor.

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