BALTIMORE — Maryland death penalty supporters launched a petition drive Friday aimed at overturning the state's newly signed repeal of capital punishment, while opponents vowed to campaign hard if the matter lands on the ballot next year.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger joined Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington, and Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, to urge voters to sign a petition to put the question on the ballot in November 2014.
"We need to retain Maryland's death penalty for those prosecutors who want to seek it in the appropriate case," said Shellenberger, who successfully prosecuted a capital case in Baltimore County and has been a strong supporter of the death penalty. "Today, we are launching repeal the repeal. We want people, the people of the state of Maryland, to decide whether Maryland should have the death penalty."
Shellenberger, Parrott and Brochin made the announcement from behind a red sign with the words "What If?" With the warehouse of Oriole Park at Camden Yards behind them, Parrott said the purpose of the sign was to ask state residents whether they would prefer to have the death penalty on the books for criminals guilty of the worst of the worst crimes.
Parrott said: "The question we have today is, 'What if?' What if it was the Baltimore marathon bombing? What if a bombing occurred right here at Camden Yards?"
Brochin said he would be taking the question to constituents in his district and urging them to sign the petition.
"I'm going to be taking this case to the community associations," Brochin said. "I'm going to be taking this case to the rotaries."
Opponents of capital punishment pledged to fight to uphold the legislation.
"Make no mistake," NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous said in a statement. "If this goes to referendum, the NAACP and countless allies throughout Maryland will be there to fight."
The Catholic Church, which illuminated the Baltimore Basilica to celebrate Thursday's bill signing, also spoke out against the petition drive.
"It is our hope that Marylanders will not support efforts to petition the repeal bill to referendum," said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.
Death penalty supporters will need to get 55,736 valid signatures by June 30 to put the matter on the ballot. They will need 18,579 by May 31 to proceed with the drive.
Parrott, who is chairman of MDPetitions.com, helped petition laws to the ballot in last year's election for the first time in 20 years. They included a same-sex marriage measure, a bill allowing in-state tuition for some students who are not in the country legally and a measure redrawing the state's congressional districts. All three were upheld by voters.
MDPetitions.com has made it easier to trigger a referendum because of an online tool that enables residents to conform information they need to include with signatures as it is required by the Maryland State Board of Elections. That has reduced the number of signatures that previously would have been thrown out.
Parrott said MDPetitions.com will not participate in petition drives relating to other statewide measures this year in order to focus on the death penalty.