Death Penalty: Will Other States Follow N.J.?

 

A year after New Jersey became the first state in a generation to repeal the death penalty, capital punishment opponents in Maryland and New Mexico are pointing to recent political developments in their states as a sign they could be next.

A Maryland commission that has been studying the state's death penalty for six months will issue a report to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) by Dec. 15 recommending that capital punishment be eliminated. The commission voted 13-7 in November to recommend a repeal after finding, among other things, that the death penalty is applied unfairly and costs more than life imprisonment.

Anti-capital punishment lawmakers, citizens' groups, religious organizations and other activists in Maryland say the commission's findings could provide the political momentum they need to win passage of a repeal bill when the General Assembly convenes in January.

Similar legislation fell a single vote short in a Maryland state Senate committee in 2007, even after O'Malley took the rare step of testifying for it. Opponents of the death penalty now are lobbying a handful of state senators - including Catholics who may be inclined to join their church's opposition to executions - to support a repeal.

In New Mexico, it is not the work of a commission, but the outcome of November's elections that could lead to a repeal, supporters say. In the state Senate, where a repeal bill failed narrowly after it passed the House of Representatives in 2007, Democrats gained three seats, and Majority Leader Michael Sanchez (D) told Stateline.org he is "very hopeful" the pick-ups will propel the legislation early next year.

But it is President-elect Barack Obama's selection of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) as his commerce secretary that could have even bigger implications. Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D), who would take over for Richardson if he is confirmed for his new role by the U.S. Senate, is viewed as more sympathetic to a repeal than the outgoing governor.

"Our primary difficulties in the Senate (in 2007) were with the executive. The governor was running for president, and he simply preferred not to have that bill reach his desk," said state Rep. Gail Chasey (D), who has sponsored repeal legislation in past sessions.

Denish's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Bills to repeal the death penalty are frequently introduced in many of the 36 states that allow capital punishment and where advocacy groups have long mounted protests. Critics cite numerous reasons for opposing the death penalty, and public defenders have continued to argue that lethal injection could inflict "cruel and unusual punishment" on condemned prisoners - even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April that it does not.

Recent repeal efforts have focused increasingly on its costs, a lobbying tactic that could prove more effective as states address a fiscal crisis in their next legislative sessions.

A New Jersey state commission that recommended abolition of the death penalty in early 2007 found that capital punishment is costlier than a sentence of life without parole, though it did not specify by how much. In Maryland, the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C., provided a report to the state's study commission finding that capital cases cost taxpayers roughly $1.9 million more than non-capital cases.

Supporters of capital punishment in Maryland disputed how the costs in the Urban Institute's study were calculated. In addition, many say costs shouldn't be a factor in the public debate over capital punishment at all.

"Justice is not a cost-benefit analysis. Justice is doing the right thing, no matter how much it costs," Joseph Cassilly, a state's attorney in Harford County, Md., testified at a public hearing of the Maryland study commission in August.

While legislation to repeal the death penalty has made progress in several states in recent years - even in traditionally conservative areas such as Montana and Nebraska - supporters of capital punishment also are quick to note that a bill's relative success in past years does not guarantee it will be popular in the future.

"Every session the dynamics are different. Because you've had some partial success on moving a bill through doesn't necessarily mean the same thing is going to happen the next time when the dynamics have changed," said Henry Valdez, a district attorney in Sante Fe, N.M., who supports the death penalty.

While opponents of capital punishment have made their voices heard in recent years, Valdez said, "the first time a 9-year-old girl is raped and killed, the advocates on the other side are going to come out."

In at least one state where a repeal of the death penalty recently has come close to reaching the governor's desk - Nebraska - political conditions have changed considerably and could hamper similar efforts in the future.

Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, the chief supporter of a repeal in the nonpartisan, unicameral Legislature, was forced out through term limits. Chambers' departure has left death-penalty opponents without a "standard-bearer," according to DeMaris Johnson, executive director of the Nebraska County Attorneys Association, which has supported the death penalty.

In addition, the Nebraska Supreme Court in February struck down the state's only method of execution - the electric chair - as unconstitutional, and Johnson said she expects the Legislature to concentrate on approving a new method, such as lethal injection, rather than debating an outright repeal of capital punishment.

But opponents of capital punishment say they are making slow but steady progress.

Even before New Jersey repealed its death penalty late last year, capital punishment was on the wane in the United States. Most of the nation's executions are carried out in a handful of states, led by Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma, and overall numbers of death sentences and executions have trended downward. The U.S. Supreme Court's review of lethal injection, which it took up late last year, caused a nationwide moratorium on all executions that added to the decline.

After the execution of an inmate in South Carolina last week, 37 people have been put to death in the United States this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. If no others are executed - and it appears unlikely any will - 2008 will end with fewer executions than any year since 1994, according to the center.

 
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