(Reuters) - Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley on Wednesday commuted the death sentences of the last four inmates remaining on death row, effectively ending capital punishment in the state.
Maryland lawmakers voted two years ago to abolish the death sentence for future offenders beginning 2013.
O'Malley, a Democrat and possible White House contender, on Wednesday said that leaving the last four prisoners to await the death penalty "does not serve the public good."
"In a representative government, state executions make every citizen a party to a legalized killing as punishment," he said in a statement.
The four prisoners, Vernon Evans, Anthony Grandison, Jody Lee Miles and Heath William Burch, had their sentences commuted by gubernatorial order to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Opponents of capital punishment applauded O'Malley's move - which came just weeks before he leaves office after two terms as Maryland's governor.
"Today's announcement gives further hope that support for the discriminatory and fatally flawed death penalty is waning," Amnesty International USA said in a statement.
"The U.S. cannot be seen as a country that truly values human rights as long as it continues to execute its citizens," the group said.
All four inmates in Maryland were convicted of murder.
A family member of two victims told the Baltimore Sun newspaper she was "devastated" to learn that Heath Williams Burch's sentence had been commuted.
Burch was convicted of the 1995 murders of Robert Davis, 70, and Cleo Davis, 77, the newspaper said. The Davises' daughter, Mary Moore, said she had asked the governor three times not to remove Burch from death row.
"He'll have a life, and I don't think he should," she said.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who supported retaining the death penalty in the state, said the capital sentences for all four men had been fair and upheld after numerous appeals.
"The governor should not be using his last days in office to show any mercy to these cold, calculating murderers," he said in a statement.
There are currently 3,054 inmates on death row in the United States, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, which compiles statistics published by the Bureau of Justice.
Connecticut and New Mexico have also in recent years abolished the death penalty. But the laws in those states were not made retroactive, so 12 and two prisoners remain on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Ryan Woo)