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Chris May 6, 2013

Another one bites the dust. Last week, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill passed by the state legislature to repeal the death penalty. The Old Line State became the sixth state in six years to repeal its death penalty. Connecticut repealed the death penalty a little more than a year ago. Sort of.

The repeals that are now law in both Connecticut and Maryland prevent the penalty from being imposed. Convicts currently condemned to death still may be executed. Specifically, crimes committed after April 24, 2012 in Connecticut would not be eligible for the death penalty. A recent high-profile case necessitated that quirk for the bill to be passed. Our state Supreme Court will end up deciding whether the eleven prisoners on death row will be executed. It heard the first challenge on April 23 in the case of Eduardo Santiago. It also remains possible for the State to seek the death penalty on a prosecution that begins after April 24, 2012 if the act was committed before that date.

Maryland’s new law stops death penalty prosecutions going forward no matter when the charged offense was committed. The governor, who has latitude in commuting sentences (our governor does not have such power–that is vested in the Board of Pardons and Parole), says he will review each case individually in addition to the expected legal challenges.

So in the states that repealed the death penalty, horrible murderers will be paroled instead of executed? No. In states that repeal the death penalty, persons convicted of the most severe murder charges (we used to call it capital felony–it is now murder with special circumstances) will receive sentences of life without the possibility of parole, which is what they would receive if they were convicted of the crime but not give the sentence of death in the penalty phase of the trial. Life without the possibility is essentially a death sentence anyway. A convict is locked up and the key is thrown away.

Maryland is now one of eighteen states to no longer have the death penalty (or have some sort of repeal in effect). With most of our country including the federal government still having this penalty as law, there is a long way to go. For many reasons, some I have already written about and others that I can and will write about in the future, the death penalty is unfair and inimical to our rights. The government must both protect the people from crimes committed by other people, and ensure that people’s rights under the law are protected. This is not to be a balance. Both objectives must be satisfied fully and fairly. Life without parole is the least restrictive means to punishing the worst criminals and protecting the public from them. A prisoner will never be free to hurt again but will remain alive to pursue the legal remedies available to him–such as clemency or a claim of actual innocence. Kirk Bloodsworth, whose name couldn’t have helped him at trial, was sentenced to death in Maryland in 1985. In 1993, he was released when his innocence was reestablished by DNA testing, becoming the first person to be exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. He wasn’t the last. Since 1973, 142 people have been exonerated and freed from their sentences of death.