What separates Maryland from other states that have had recent abolition campaigns is the consistent presence of a single governor with the initiative to pass abolition legislation. While bills in other states have had gubernatorial support, Governor Martin O’Malley was the only governor to formally make abolition a part of his legislative agenda.
The death penalty was repealed in Connecticut in 2012, but the abolition campaign spanned two different governors. The first one, Governor Jodi Rell, vetoed a 2009 bill to repeal the death penalty. In 2010, Governor Dannel Malloy made repealing the death penalty an issue in his election campaign, despite claiming that he used to advocate for it. When the bill passed in 2012, Governor Malloy signed it. However, the support in the legislature was present before his election, as evidenced by the 2009 bill, so Governor Malloy’s direct effect was limited.
Three Illinois governors dealt with changes to death penalty practice that eventually ended with abolition. The Illinois campaign caught fire in 2000, when Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on capital punishment after coming within days of executing Anthony Porter, who soon after was exonerated of the crime and freed. Noticing that there had been more exonerations than executions in Illinois, he appointed a study commission to recommend ways to prevent the execution of the innocent. When the legislature refused to act on any of the 80+ recommendations, Ryan commuted all 167 death sentences before leaving office in 2003. Governor Rod Blagojevich signed legislation enacting a number of the study commission’s recommendations later that year. More than a decade later, Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation repealing the death penalty in 2011. However, Governor Quinn’s action, like Governor Blagojevich’s, would not have been possible without the acts of his predecessors in the right direction.
New Mexico’s death penalty law was repealed in 2009, but not because of strong support from Governor Bill Richardson. Abolition legislation was first introduced in 1999, when it languished without gubernatorial support. In 2009, Governor Richardson decided to sign the repeal bill only after it passed the legislature. The New Mexico case is similar to the Connecticut experience in which legislators took the lead, and not the governor, even though the governor ended up playing a crucial role.
In New Jersey, the legislature let reforms necessary to maintain the constitutionality of capital punishment expire in 2005 before abolishing the practice altogether in 2007. Those reforms had been mandated by a 2004 state appeals court decision that declared the lethal injection protocol in New Jersey unconstitutional. The legislature that Governor Jon Corzine worked with had laid the foundations for reform before he was elected governor. While Governor Corzine’s vocal support for abolition both during his tenure as United States Senator and Governor definitely helped advance the movement, the foundations for the eventual bill were laid by the courts, the legislature, and above all, the activists.
Other states with abolition efforts that have not been successful in the past include Colorado and New Hampshire. In Colorado, a bill to repeal the death penalty made it through the Assembly in 2009, but stalled without support from Governor Bill Ritter. A similar bill failed to make it out of committee in 2013 after Governor John Hickenlooper told Democratic legislators that he was considering vetoing the bill.
In 2000, New Hampshire became the first state since new death penalty laws were upheld in 1976 to pass legislation to repeal capital punishment, only to have that bill be vetoed by Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Governor John Lynch’s opposition caused another bill to fail in 2009, although he did support a bill that Governor Craig Benson vetoed to ban capital punishment for those under the age of 18. Current Governor Maggie Hassan has declared her support for abolishing the death penalty, but no bill has yet been passed for her to sign. Because all of the necessary elements have yet to come together, abolition efforts have so far stalled in New Hampshire and Colorado.
Governor O’Malley, on the other hand, took a more active role in the effort to abolish the death penalty in Maryland. His presence was consistent throughout the debate over the death penalty, voicing support for the bill each time it came up in the legislature – in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013. In 2007, he wrote an opinion in the Washington Post declaring the death penalty an ineffective deterrent and calling for the money that could be saved by abolishing the death penalty to be redirected towards hiring more police officers.
In both 2009 and 2013, Governor O’Malley sponsored the bill and testified before committees in both houses. By testifying, Governor O’Malley made full use of his bully pulpit, which no other governor did quite so emphatically. He introduced the bill and then called on the residents of Maryland, as their elected leader, to evaluate the death penalty on all fronts - as a deterrent, as a waste of money, as a moral issue, as racially biased, and more. By using all of the resources available to him, Governor O’Malley was able to turn an uncooperative legislature into a supportive one.
The success of the abolition campaign in Maryland differs from campaigns in other states because of Governor O’Malley’s decisive leadership. Governor O’Malley’s endorsement, along with the work of a broad coalition of community leaders, organizations and churches, convinced state legislators to repeal the death penalty. The experience in Maryland shows that the presence of a vocally supportive governor can move abolition forward.