(Washington, DC) – Maryland is on the verge of becoming the sixth US state in six years to abolish the death penalty, though five men may continue to sit on the state’s death row.
On March 15, 2013, the Maryland House of Delegates passed a bill, approved by the State Senate on March 6, that replaces capital punishment with the sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. It now goes to Governor Martin O’Malley, who has been a strong opponent of the death penalty and who supported the bill. However, the bill does not directly affect the five inmates awaiting execution in Maryland, leaving it up to O’Malley to determine whether to commute their sentences.
“Maryland’s rejection of the death penalty adds to the national momentum against this cruel and increasingly unusual punishment,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Governor O’Malley should demonstrate his commitment to the new law by commuting the death sentences of the five men currently on death row.”
Maryland’s expected repeal of the death penalty is an indicator of the growing momentum against capital punishment in the United States, Human Rights Watch said. Since 2007, death sentences have been eliminated in New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, and Connecticut. Once Maryland joins them, 18 states and the District of Columbia will have rejected the death penalty. Legislatures in several other states are considering bills to repeal capital punishment. In addition, the death penalty has been used more sparingly in recent years – with a total of 43 executions nationwide in 2011 and again in 2012, compared with 85 executions in 2000.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently irreversible and inhumane punishment. Moreover, the death penalty is inevitably plagued with arbitrariness, racial disparities, and error.
In Maryland, as in many US states, application of the death penalty has been marred by significant racial disparities and wide discrepancies between jurisdictions. People convicted of committing crimes in Baltimore County, for example, are far more likely to be sentenced to death than those who committed their crimes in the neighboring city of Baltimore. Four of the five men on Maryland’s death row are African-Americans whose victims were white.
Since the repeal bill makes no provision for the five men facing execution, they could still be killed after exhausting all their appeals. Under the Maryland constitution, the governor has the power to commute sentences. O’Malley should ensure that the death penalty is never again used in Maryland by immediately commuting the sentences of all five death row inmates.
The bill’s failure to make the repeal of the death penalty retroactive is contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the US is a party. All state governments are bound to abide by its provisions. The covenant states that if a law reduces a criminal penalty, all offenders should benefit from such a reduction, even those who committed their offense before the reduction. The US included a reservation when it ratified the treaty in 1992 that it would not adhere to this provision, stating that, “US law generally applies to an offender the penalty in force at the time the offense was committed.”
“Maryland is on its way to making state executions a thing of the past,” Ginatta said. “The rest of the United States should follow suit and end this cruel punishment.”