Why Martin O'Malley Needs to Lead Maryland to Death Penalty Abolition

By Brian Evans, Interim Director of Amnesty International USA's Death Penalty Abolition Campaign

Opposing the death penalty is not the political third rail it used to be (or at least was considered to be). It has become a mainstream choice. Especially now, and especially in a state like Maryland, with its tiny death row and no death sentences since 2004.

For Maryland's political leadership, choosing to repeal its moribund capital punishment law shouldn't be a hard vote. The public prefers life without parole. Governor Martin O'Malley has been not only an admitted but an avowed abolitionist since he assumed office in 2007, and he was re-elected in 2010 by double digits. This past year he demonstrated his state's readiness for groundbreaking lawmaking with passage of both marriage equality and the DREAM Act. In fact, death penalty abolition is less groundbreaking than either of these, as four states have legislatively abolished the death penalty since O'Malley has been Maryland's Governor.

Sadly, his state is not one of them.

He can and should rectify this in 2013. And it won't be that hard if O'Malley and Maryland legislators ask themselves one basic question: who is the death penalty for?

Is it for public safety? The idea that the death penalty is a deterrent has is rejected by 88% of criminologists.

Is it better for taxpayers? Hardly; a recent study on the cost of the Maryland death penalty found that, as in every other state where it has been examined, the death penalty costs considerably more than alternative sentences.

Is it for victims' families? The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment found by a 20-1 vote that the death penalty actually causes more suffering for the victims' families than the alternatives. And Maryland's death penalty repeal bill includes an appropriation from the money saved by getting rid of the death penalty that will specifically aid survivors of homicide victims.

Is it needed to protect prison guards? In the last trial for the murder of a prison guard, a jury of conscientious Marylanders returned a sentence of life without parole not a death sentence.

Is it needed as a tool for prosecutors to extract confessions or get favorable plea deals? Using threats of the death penalty to get confessions is considered by most to be unethical, and it can lead to false confessions or false accusations that ensnare the innocent, as happened in Maryland to Anthony Gray.

Governor O'Malley rightly touts his significant accomplishments and his ability to get things done. He became strongly associated with death penalty abolition when he led a march and personally introduced a repeal bill in 2009. It would be a shame for him to leave this important bit of business unfinished.

Finishing the job of death penalty repeal is also essential for the cause of justice. Killing prisoners belongs in the past in the same way that we look upon torture or indefinite detention without trial.

The death penalty is a fundamental human rights abuse and an abuse of state power. Two thirds of the world's countries have already decided to abandon capital punishment, establishing it as a throwback to a less civilized world. For victims, the death penalty is a hoax, for taxpayers it's a money pit, for law enforcement, it's irrelevant, for the world, it's becoming an anachronism. In Maryland, politically, it's a paper tiger. For the sake of his legacy, and for the sake of promoting and leading us to a more humane form of criminal justice, Governor O'Malley needs to accomplish death penalty repeal in 2013. And it won't even be that hard.

Brian Evans is the Interim Director of Amnesty International USA's Death Penalty Abolition Campaign and a resident of Maryland. Follow Brian on Twitter: @BRCEvans