Momentum Shift

Gov. Martin O’Malley is willing to put his political life on the line for a principle.

The Maryland Democrat has shown a willingness to act in opposition to public opinion, three times attempting to repeal his state’s death penalty statute including most recently earlier this year. That effort ended in March with the governor supporting a compromise plan that would leave capital punishment on the books, but severely restrict its use.

The legislation, which is opposed by the state attorney general, would “allow capital punishment only in murder cases where there is DNA evidence, a video recording of the crime or a voluntary, videotaped confession by the killer,” according to the Baltimore Sun. The legislation would give Maryland “one of the narrowest capital punishment statutes in the country.”

The governor, according to the Sun, says he remains committed to ending capital punishment, but was willing to back away from abolition for now because he said it was clear the votes weren’t there and the tighter restrictions were “significant and needed progress.”

Progress is the operative word. Maryland is just one of numerous state governments that have been tightening their death penalty statute or, like New Jersey, shutting down their execution chambers altogether. New Jersey abolished its death penalty in December 2007, becoming the first state to do so, and New Mexico’s abolition bill got Gov. Bill Richardson’s signature March 19. Several other states also are either considering or have considered abolition.

The number of executions is down around the country, as well, according to Time magazine. “For most of the 1990s the number of death sentences handed down annually by courts had been humming along in the range of 280 to 300 and above,” the magazine said in February. Last year, however, there were “just 37 executions in the US, with only 111 death sentences handed down.”

Even the US Supreme Court, which reinstated the death penalty in 1976, has been peeling away at it, voting to bar “execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded” and, most recently, the use of capital punishment “for crimes that did not involve killings.”

Call it an “evolving standard of decency,” a standard the court has used for years to gauge whether punishments — in particular, the death penalty — are consistent with the public’s values.

While polls continue to show support for capital punishment, that support is at its lowest point in 30 years. More importantly, support for the death penalty falls to 47% when life in prison is offered as an alternative.

Juries appear to be reacting in the same way. Consider recent trends in relatively conservative North Carolina. As the News & Record of Greensboro, N.C., pointed out earlier this year, no one was executed in the state in 2008, continuing “a downward trend” and “demonstrat(ing) that juries are increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty and more confident in the alternative of life in prison without parole.”

The momentum that appears to be building toward abolition is part of a larger arc, what the Washington Post, in a January editorial called the “march of history” toward abolition of an “increasingly obsolete and consistently barbaric penalty.”

That’s O’Malley’s view.

“I believe that certainly over the long-term arc of history that we will all come to conclude that the death penalty is inconsistent with one of the most important and basic and fundamental beliefs upon which this republic is founded, which is the belief in the dignity of every individual,” O’Malley told the Baltimore Sun. “It’s not right that, on this issue, our nation should be numbered among the company of places like North Korea, Iran and Communist China.”

That we are keeping company with such beacons of liberty should leave us all feeling a bit dirty.

Hank Kalet is a poet and the online editor for The Princeton Packet newspaper group. E-mail or see his blog,

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2009

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