Maryland Death Penalty Not Likely To Receive Signature Drive

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks at a rally in support of repealing the state's death penalty in Annapolis, Md., Tuesday,
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks at a rally in support of repealing the state's death penalty in Annapolis, Md., Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. O'Malley, who said he will be making repeal a priority, argued that the death penalty is a waste of resources that could be better used to fight crime in more productive ways. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland Delegate Neil Parrott has headed up petition drives that gave voters a final word on same-sex marriage and congressional redistricting.

But if the Maryland General Assembly decides to do away with the death penalty, Parrott said, he's not looking to seize a clipboard and start gathering signatures. Though he opposes repealing capital punishment, Parrott, R-Wash., says this session he is focusing his energy elsewhere.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has predicted that if state lawmakers decide to abolish the death penalty, a petition drive will ensure Maryland voters have the final say on the issue. But for Delegate Michael Hough, there's one problem: No one is stepping up to lead the effort. Given Parrott's lack of interest in carrying the torch, Miller's forecast has a slim chance of coming to pass, Hough believes.

"I know of no effort and no interest at this point to bring this thing to referendum," said Hough, R-District 3B, adding that repeal supporters are "just looking for political cover, and Republicans shouldn't give it to them."

By relying on a petition drive, lawmakers who are on the fence about the death penalty can support the repeal bill while claiming they want the final decision to rest with Maryland voters, Hough argues, and he wants no part of it.

Hough has spent a couple summers working with Parrott on other petition drives, but he said he would sit this one out, even though he is a strong supporter of keeping capital punishment.

Miller, D-Calvert, has not backed abolishing the death penalty, though he has been willing to allow debate in the issue.

Parrott, chairman of MDPeti tions.com, has used the referendum process to challenge the Democrat-dominated legislature. Though Parrott's group has given voters the option of contradicting Maryland lawmakers on several issues, state residents so far have sided with the general assembly; the most recent election affirmed the legislature's actions on same-sex marriage, congressional redistricting and providing in-state tuition for undocumented students.

This session, Parrott is fighting a push to increase the number of hurdles for a successful petition drive and has no plans to lead a charge in the death penalty issue.

"Our full focus is on making sure the referendum process is still a viable alternative in the future," he said.

Others could fill the void left by Parrott.

Baltimore County's state's attorney, a vocal opponent of repeal, said he is not aware of any petition drive now forming. However, Scott Shellenberger said a campaign could come together quickly if the legislature moves toward ending capital punishment in the state.

He was not ready to describe what role he might play in a petition effort. However, he said he thinks petitioners would gather the 55,736 signatures needed to put the issue before voters in 2014.

Shellenberger said he was glad the Senate committee stripped from the repeal bill a provision to dedicate $500,000 each year to a fund for crime victims. The money was headed to a worthy cause, he said, but Maryland law prevents appropriation bills from being brought to a referendum, so the provision could have snagged petition efforts.

"Something as monumental as death penalty repeal should have potential to go to referendum," Shellenberger said.

Before the general assembly decides on the death penalty bill, David Ferguson, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said he does not want to comment on whether the GOP would lead a petition effort. However, he said party members have backed past signature-gathering drives, and he hopes they will continue doing so.

The Senate will take up the death penalty bill after finishing up with gun control legislation, Miller said, possibly today. ___

(c)2013 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.)

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