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Why doesn't O'Malley clear death row?

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley staunchly opposes the death penalty: Given its flaws -- the lack of deterrent impact, the risk of a wrongful execution, high costs -- capital punishment can be neither morally nor practically justified, he argues.

The issue moves him to eloquence. “Human dignity is the fundamental belief on which the laws of this state and this republic are founded,” O’Malley wrote in a 2007 Post op-ed. “And absent a deterrent value, the damage done to the concept of human dignity by our conscious communal use of the death penalty is greater than the benefit of even a justly drawn retribution.”

As governor, O’Malley supported the creation of a Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which called for the abolition of the death penalty based on racial bias and other alleged inequities in the Maryland death penalty. Brandishing those findings, the governor fought for an abolition law last year, falling just short of victory. He and his allies in the state legislature have taken their time about resolving administrative issues with the state’s lethal injection protocols, thus prolonging a Court of Appeals-imposed de facto moratorium on executions.

“I’m really not looking for a medal,” O’Malley told The Post last year. “I’m not looking for applause. I just believe that it’s the right thing to do, and therefore I must try.”

But I wonder: If O’Malley is so courageous, and this is such an issue of principle for him, why are there still five people on death row in Maryland? Why doesn’t he commute their sentences to life imprisonment, as Maryland’s constitution and laws empower him to do? It would certainly be a more permanent -- and forthright -- approach than this indirect foot-dragging routine with the lethal injection protocols.

To be sure, clearing Death Row wouldn’t achieve his ultimate goal of abolishing the death penalty. But it would save the lives of five people sentenced under what the Commission on Capital Punishment has told the governor was an irretrievably flawed process -- and whose executions, according to O’Malley, would serve no purpose even if that process had been absolutely pristine.

When the governor visited The Post on Jan. 21, I asked him these questions -- ready for almost any response but the stunningly unconvincing one he actually gave.

O’Malley suggested that there might be some technical problem with a simultaneous commutation of all five sentences. “I don’t know off the top of my head legally whether I’d be prohibited from doing the joint blanket commutation or not,” he mused, adding that “the best course to follow is to handle each case individually.”

Okay, a colleague ventured, what about doing them one at a time? O’Malley hemmed and hawed again, offering a defense of his anti-death penalty legislative efforts and taking credit for Maryland’s improving murder rate. “Of course part of my duties require me to evaluate requests for pardons, requests for commutations and other things, and I’ll handle them in the due course,” he concluded.

I gave him one more chance, asking whether he was waiting for the death row inmates to ask for clemency. To which O’Malley’s remarkable reply was: “I haven’t looked at any of the files of the five.”

For the record, according to several experts on the subject with whom I spoke, nothing in Maryland law prohibits the governor from pardoning or commuting the sentences of any prisoner or prisoners he wants, for whatever reason he wants, whether or not the prisoner requests clemency first.

O’Malley’s inability to muster one plausible, principled reason not to commute the death sentences tells me that he’s playing politics. O’Malley’s liberal Democratic party base dislikes the death penalty. But, overall, voters in the state support it 53 percent to 41 percent -- and much of that support is concentrated in Baltimore County, a swing jurisdiction in statewide elections. Clearing death row might turn pro-death penalty voters against O’Malley and hurt his re-election chances this fall.

I suppose O’Malley’s re-election might be so important to the long-run cause of abolishing the death penalty in Maryland that it is worth exposing five actual condemned men to prolonged uncertainty, not to mention the risk of possible execution, in the here and now. But I’d sure like to see someone try to argue that publicly.

Meanwhile, O’Malley ducks the issue of executive clemency -- to the extent he thinks about it at all. He’s right: they don’t give medals for that.

By Charles Lane  | January 25, 2010; 4:46 PM ET
Categories:  Lane  | Tags:  Charles Lane  
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I agree with your assessment that he is playing politics. But I think the question on whither or not a governor commuting a sentence based on political belief outlines the divide between the government and the people.
Not that he doesn't have the power to clear death row, but it wouldn't be right. I think in this case the will of the people should decide the policy rather than the politics of those in power.

I might add that i concur with the governor's beliefs that the capitol punishment system doesn't work, and is too costly to continue. But sadly, unless an argument that can sway those who disagree is made, the policy should stay.

I also should extend this to say that some decisions are and should be made by those in power. (i.e. gay marriage) But should be limited to equal rights under the constitution and the possible gray areas that a modern society can illuminate in the constitution.

Posted by: cperk88 | January 25, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Best way to clear Maryland's death row, is to immediately execute those that have been sentenced to death. Clear them out, dispose of them. Make room for more that need to be expelled from the human gene pool.

O’Malley, besides being a fool, is delaying justice for the families of those hurt by the death row inmates. He is wasting the good money of the citizens of Maryland in the prisoners incarceration as well, money that could be better used elsewhere in the state on more important projects.

Posted by: surfer-joe | January 25, 2010 11:55 PM | Report abuse

Hang 'em high!

Posted by: neilwied | January 26, 2010 1:12 AM | Report abuse

Absolutely--clear death row by putting these people to death. Then, "commute" all life terms for violent criminals to death, and hang them too. Then go after predators of children and kill them where they stand, wherever they can be found.

Posted by: Greenwaver | January 26, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse

The author insists that we "save" the 5 death row inmates in Maryland as if they are the victims of some injustice.

Were they convicted by a jury of their peers? Yes.

Were their appeals heard? Yes, or they will be in time.

If you are against the death penalty, then argue against the death penalty, not in support of criminals that deserve to die. This is why liberals never win arguments.

Posted by: jboogie1 | January 26, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Governor O’Malley is demonstrably ineffective –even at doing those things that his conscious might command him to do.

When it comes to the death penalty, we all have an opinion. Some of those opinions are dictated by logic, some by emotion, and some by moral conviction. As a youth, my opposition to the death penalty was born in moral conviction. I believed that no human or government had the right to impose death as punishment. I also knew logically that the death penalty could never be an effective deterrent. That conviction has changed as I grew older, married and had children– I now know in my own heart that I would kill someone as retribution if they harmed my family. I have evolved to the point of believing that death imposed by victims might in some circumstances be just as pure retribution.

However, as an adult, I have also had many years of exposure to the working of our judicial system and I now firmly believe that the government will NEVER be capable of fairly applying the death penalty. The system is very far from perfect and is incapable of finding the truth in many cases. Prosecutions are driven by emotion, principal blind to fact, and all too often political pressures.

People, especially those directly connected with the judicial process, don’t want to believe that our justice system is severely flawed. Even when confronted with incontrovertible DNA evidence exonerating convicted defendants, prosecutors and victims sometimes still refuse to acknowledge that they were wrong. They don’t want to admit that they failed and sent someone to death row that was innocent. The real failure of the death penalty is not the principal that it is just, it is the belief that humans are capable of rendering justice.

Posted by: CriticalPass | January 26, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

i know you're being cute, but I agree. Do away with the death penalty. Life without parole is enough.

Posted by: jckdoors | January 26, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

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