ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Opponents of capital punishment marked a milestone Thursday as Maryland became the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line to abolish the death penalty in nearly 50 years, joining only West Virginia.
The passage was a significant victory for Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Roman Catholic who opposes capital punishment and is considering seeking the 2016 presidential nomination. Death penalty opponents said the governor helped maintain the national momentum of repeal efforts by making Maryland the sixth state in as many years to abolish capital punishment.
"I don't know exactly what the timing is, but over the longer arc of history I think you'll see more and more states repeal the death penalty," O'Malley said in a brief interview after the bill signing. "It's wasteful. It's ineffective. It doesn't work to reduce violent crime."
NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous, who worked to get the repeal bill passed, noted the significance of a Democratic governor south of the Mason-Dixon line with presidential aspirations leading an effort to ban capital punishment. Jealous noted that in 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton left the presidential campaign trail to oversee the execution of a man who had killed a police officer, a move widely viewed as an effort to shed the Democratic Party's image as soft on crime.
"Our governor has also just redefined what it means to have a political future in this country," Jealous said. "You know, it was just 20 years ago that a young governor with possibilities below the Mason-Dixon stopped during his presidential campaign" to oversee an execution.
West Virginia, which is also south of the Mason-Dixon line, abolished the death penalty in 1965.
Maryland is the 18th state to abolish the death penalty. Neighboring Delaware also made a push to repeal it this year, but the bill has stalled.
Diane Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Maryland is keeping the momentum going for other states to follow.
"It doesn't always happen overnight," Rust-Tierney said. "The more people study it, the more people understand it. This was a seven-year effort here in Maryland."
Supporters of capital punishment said the governor was taking away an important tool to protect the public. Del. Neil Parrott, a Washington County Republican, criticized the governor for moving ahead with banning the death penalty during the same session as he pushed for a gun-control bill to restrict firearms access to law-abiding citizens.
Parrott, who is chairman of a group called MDPetitions.com, scheduled a news conference on Friday to announce the group's decision on whether to launch a petition drive to try to put the death penalty ban on the ballot for voters to decide in 2014. He declined to say Thursday what the decision will be. They would need to get one-third of the 55,736 signatures needed to petition a bill to referendum by midnight May 31 to qualify to move forward.
State Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat and constitutional law professor who opposes the death penalty, said he believes pressure is building around the country to focus law enforcement resources on things that are proven to lower the homicide rate.
"The trend lines are clear," Raskin said. "There's nobody who's adding the death penalty to their state laws. Everybody is taking it away."
Opponents of capital punishment also noted that the state won't have to worry about potentially putting an innocent person to death. Kirk Bloodsworth, a Maryland man who was the first person in the U.S. freed because of DNA evidence after a conviction in a death penalty case, attended the news conference.
The bill will not apply to the five men the state has on death row, but the governor can commute their sentences to life without parole. O'Malley has said he will consider them on a case-by-case basis.
The state's last execution was in 2005, when Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich was in office.
Last year, the Death Penalty Information Center said in an annual report that just four states carried out more than three-fourths of the executions in the United States last year, while another 23 had not put an inmate to death in 10 years.