POSTED: Sunday, March 17, 2013 - 12:24am
UPDATED: Sunday, March 17, 2013 - 12:39am
(CNN) — The General Assembly voted to repeal the death penalty Friday, calling for an end to Maryland's 375-year history of capital punishment and joining a growing number of states outlawing the practice.
After nearly two hours of impassioned debate, the House of Delegates approved Gov. Martin O'Malley's repeal legislation, 82-56, sending the measure to the governor for his signature. The state Senate voted 27-20 for repeal last week.
"We're a better state for ending it," said Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Democrat from Baltimore who has long pushed for repeal.
Delegates spoke of religion, morality and personal loss, as well as grisly murders from Maryland's recent past, in variously trying to persuade colleagues to erase capital punishment from the books or keep it for the most heinous crimes.
"The death penalty is not a deterrent. It is justice," said Del. C.T. Wilson, a former prosecutor and a Charles County Democrat. "I've seen the worst of the worst. It is necessary."
O'Malley, a Democrat, has lobbied for repeal since taking office. Over time, he changed his message from one of morality to one of pragmatism, arguing that the death penalty is expensive and imperfect.
"When we understand how lives can be saved, we have a moral responsibility to do more of the things that work to save lives," O'Malley said. "We also have a moral responsibility not to do things that are wasteful and that are expensive and do not work and don't save lives."
His staff said he likely will sign the bill after the General Assembly session ends next month. The measure is effective Oct. 1.
While opponents of capital punishment celebrated the vote, the legislation's passage in Annapolis may not be final. Death penalty supporters could petition it to the 2014 ballot and leave the question to Maryland voters. If that happens, the law would be put on hold until after the election.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who voted against repeal, predicted such a challenge. Though no specific group has volunteered to head that effort, polls show the death penalty still has the support of a narrow majority of voters.
Five men, all murderers, are on death row in Maryland for crimes that date back as far as 1983. O'Malley declined to answer questions about the fate of those men now that repeal has passed.
Court decisions — including one in 2006 that remains in force — have halted executions in the state for extended periods, but never before has the General Assembly voted to end the practice.
Maryland is the sixth state in as many years where lawmakers have abolished the death penalty and the first south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Seventeen other states have repealed capital punishment.
Sen. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat who led the pro-repeal camp in the Senate, said the debate hinged on an imperfect justice system and the best way to help the families of murder victims.
"Infallibility and perfection belong to God, not human beings."