Turning Away From Celebrating Death

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Despite the recent filibuster in Nebraska, support for death penalty abolition is once again on the rise (Photo Credit: Allen Hailey).

Despite the recent filibuster in Nebraska, support for death penalty abolition is once again on the rise (Photo Credit: Allen Hailey).

LB 543, Nebraska’s death penalty repeal bill, was successfully filibustered this week by a minority of the state’s senators. During the course of two days of debate and occasional voting, it became clear that the votes to pass the bill might have been there, but the two-thirds majority needed to break a filibuster was not.

Nebraska’s death penalty, like capital punishment elsewhere, suffers from arbitrariness, unfairness, and general uselessness, facts that are dawning on a lot of legislators in a lot of states. The defense of the death penalty in the Nebraska debate was not passionate, and relied on the citing of discredited deterrence studies and a vague sense the executions somehow equal justice.

Nebraska’s embarrassing attempts to acquire lethal injection drugs may have been partially responsible for the sheepishness with which the pro-death penalty arguments seemed to be infused. But more likely it’s just that the days of cheering for executions and celebrating the death penalty are over.

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It’s Official! Death Penalty Now Abolished In Maryland

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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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Who’s Next To Abolish The Death Penalty – Delaware?

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The state of Delaware is known as the “Small Wonder”, but it has a surprisingly large death row.  With 17 men (10 of them African American) facing execution, Delaware’s death row is more than twice as big as Virginia’s, and more than 3 times the size of Maryland’s.  And Delaware has the third highest per capita execution rate of any state in the U.S. (behind Oklahoma and Texas).

But now, a bill making its way through the state legislature may mean than no one else will be sent to Delaware’s death row.  A death penalty repeal bill has already cleared the Delaware Senate, and will be taken up by the House on April 24.

There are deep concerns about costs, about wrongful convictions, and about the racial disproportionality of Delaware’s death penalty (the subject of a Cornell University study). These concerns, amplified by powerful appeals from family members of murder victims, and by the voices of those forced to become complicit in state killing (like this juror from a recent Delaware capital case), may be enough to bring about a second successful state death penalty repeal this year.

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Maryland Legislature Passes Death Penalty Abolition!

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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

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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

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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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Maryland’s March Towards Death Penalty Repeal

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Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Lt. Governor Anthony Brown with Amnesty activists calling for death penalty repeal in Annapolis, Feb. 14, 2013.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Lt. Governor Anthony Brown with Amnesty activists calling for death penalty repeal in Annapolis, Feb. 14, 2013.

On Valentine’s Day, in overflowing hearing rooms in both the House and Senate, Maryland legislators heard testimony from victim’s family members, former prison wardens, religious leaders, an innocent man who once faced execution in Maryland, the state’s Lieutenant Governor, and Governor Martin O’Malley. And what they heard, over and over, is that the death penalty must be abolished.

As in past years, those testifying in favor of repealing capital punishment far outnumbered those speaking for retaining it. That’s nothing new, but in other ways this year has been different. The crowds that gathered to witness the hearings were larger. The high-level political engagement has been stronger and more focused.  And the understanding that the votes exist to pass death penalty abolition into law is now fully entrenched in the Annapolis political landscape.

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Why Showing Up For Death Penalty Repeal Matters

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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.

As of this writing, 33 states in the U.S. still retain the death penalty (and two more still have inmates on death row). There is also a Federal death penalty and a death penalty in the U.S. military.  The kangaroo courts at Guantánamo can issue death sentences too.

Though we are definitely seeing a decline in support for the death penalty in the U.S., that’s still a lot of capital punishment. To truly and sustainably overcome this culture of casual killing we will need – and we are building – a powerful grass-roots movement.

That’s why a victory for abolition in a state like Maryland, if it happens, will be so important.  Change – lasting change – in the United States, where human rights are often ignored or dismissed, is going to come from the ground up … from the states, and even more locally from faith groups, campuses and communities. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State

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Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley speaks for death penalty repeal,  surrounded by supporters and the media.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley speaks to supporters and the media for death penalty repeal.

Montana and Maryland, what do they share
With big Colorado, and small Delaware?
Big Sky Montana’s a red state, it’s true,
While Maryland’s one of the bluest of blue.

There’s one thing they all share – now take a deep breath –
They all might abolish the punishment of death!
Yes, these red and these blue states, the large and the small
Might soon not conduct executions at all!

And you can take action if you live in these states,
Because human rights change can’t be left to the fates.
Just click on the links or pass on to a friend
And in these 4 states executions may end.

Colorado | Delaware | Maryland | Montana

Don’t live in these states?  Don’t worry, because
You can forward the actions to someone who does.

In Maryland: Victims, Not Vengeance?

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Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley

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

Passage of Maryland’s death penalty repeal bill in 2013 would be historic, and not only because it would ban capital punishment in that state.  Though of course ending executions in Maryland would be great, the 2013 repeal bill would be more historic because of what it does for the families of victims.

Since capital punishment costs more in Maryland than the alternatives (as it does in California, or any other state where the question has been studied), savings are to be had, and Maryland’s death penalty repeal bill appropriates some of those savings to support the real needs of victims’ families.  Many families who lose a loved one (often times a breadwinner) to murder simply can’t afford the bare necessities like counseling, travel to court dates and hearings, or even funeral costs.

Redirecting funds wasted on capital punishment to provide for these basic needs respects both the rights the prisoner (who will not be subjected to the ultimate cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment) and the rights of the victim (whose loved ones will be supported in ways that truly matter).  Here’s hoping Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley will lead his state to passing this groundbreaking legislation, invigorating the USA’s march to abolition, while setting a new standard for how criminal justice can be more humane and do more for victims’ families.