On May 2, 2013, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed a bill to repeal the death penalty, making Maryland the eighteenth state to abolish the death penalty and the sixth to do so in six years. The successful campaign that led to this moment involved a broad coalition of community and organizational partners who worked for the better part of a decade until they finally prevailed when the Maryland legislature passed the bill to end capital punishment.
The effort to end the death penalty in Maryland spanned many years and encompassed a number of important benchmarks:
- an Executive Moratorium instituted in 2002 by Governor Paris Glendenning that was later removed by Governor Robert Ehrlich;
- a bi-partisan commission which recommended abolition;
- reform that made the death penalty statute the narrowest such law in the country; and
- finally repeal.
With Maryland abandoning the practice of capital punishment, the death penalty is further isolated to only a handful of jurisdictions across the country. The momentum that we have seen in recent years, in Maryland and beyond, is a clear indicator that public sentiment about the death penalty is shifting.
A spokesperson for the Maryland State Conference President of the NAACP, Gerald Stansbury, commented that the African-American and Latino communities played a pivotal role. These minority communities have a strong track record of coming together on “issues related to civil rights and social justice,” particularly issues in which “the law appears to be colorblind,” but is not in its application, such as the death penalty.
A growing chorus of mothers, ministers, neighbors, police officers, retail workers and teachers are making it possible for us have a different conversation about how we respond to violence and support those who are harmed by it. Citizens are going about their daily lives and believing that a world without the death penalty is not only possible but desirable. Over the course of the campaign, more and more Maryland residents expressed their concern with and opposition to the death penalty to their legislators.
Mary Ellen Russell of the Archdiocese of Baltimore explained that the “most important turning point” came when Senator Bobby Zirkin, author of the 2009 legislation that sought to “fix” rather than repeal the death penalty, switched his vote in committee, acknowledging that capital punishment can never be free from error. “[His was] the last vote we needed to get the repeal bill out of the Senate committee […] and onto the Senate floor,” Russell commented.
Jane Henderson, Executive Director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions (MD CASE), stressed the importance of the broad coalition that formed behind the abolition cause. Russell called the coalition “extraordinary in its breadth and diversity,” with unprecedented unanimity among Maryland’s religious community.
One thing is clear about the Maryland campaign: support came from all sorts of social justice-minded organizations. Religious organizations, such as the Catholic archdiocese, national organizations, like the NAACP and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and state-and-issue-specific organizations, like MD CASE, came together to achieve abolition in this bellwether state.
By building similar coalitions in other states, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and partner organizations expect to achieve more victories in the coming years.