Satirist Stephen Colbert called the death penalty “as American as killing someone with an apple pie,” but jokes like that might not work much longer.
America’s death penalty appears to be crumbling.
On Friday the State House in Maryland voted to pass legislation to repeal the death penalty with a vote of 82-56. The State Senate already passed the legislation and the governor has promised to sign. So Maryland will become the sixth state in six years to end the death penalty.
I work with Equal Justice USA, a national organization that worked closely on the Maryland repeal campaign. From where I sit – in the thick of the death penalty repeal movement – I can tell you that the death penalty’s days are numbered.
Maryland proves that the death penalty is so inherently flawed that it can’t be “fixed.”
Maryland tried everything to make the death penalty work. They instituted a moratorium, a large-scale study, and a set of sweeping reforms in 2009 that made their death penalty the narrowest in the nation.
The architect of the reforms, Maryland Senator Bobby Zirkin, previously supported the death penalty but this year became a pivotal vote in favor of repeal. Zirkin said that even after all the reforms, Maryland still risked executing an innocent person.
Zirkin also said he was influenced by victims’ families, many of whom who wrote, called and appeared before the legislature.
Such families talked about how death penalty trials were agonizing and lengthy – and often promised one sentence in the beginning only to result in a another sentence in the end. The reforms only made the cases more complicated. Many African American victims’ families spoke of how the death penalty showers resources on a few cherry-picked cases (almost always ones in which the victims were white) while ignoring the things that might actually help them address their trauma and rebuild their lives – things like help with funeral expenses, specialized grief counseling, help navigating the legal system, and time off from work.
Maryland is the latest in a national trend of states concluding the death penalty is a failure.
Six states will have ended the death penalty in six years. Delaware introduced similar legislation last Tuesday. Nebraska lawmakers held death penalty hearings the same day. Other states like Colorado, Kansas, and Montana have come close in the past and will consider it again in the next few years
Nationally, the number of death sentences has continued to trend downward for the last decade. Just 43 people were executed and 77 death sentences were handed down in 2012. That’s just one more sentence than was issued in 2011, which saw the fewest number of people sentenced to death than in any year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.(see the Death Penalty Information Center) for more execution and sentencing statistics)
Maryland also proves that supporting repeal is no longer politically risky.
It is still critical, however, that Maryland lawmakers are acknowledged for what they have done. A few Maryland House Delegates in particular showed unwavering strength and leadership in making repeal happen. They deserve special recognition.
They also need to be reminded that there’s more to do. Governor O’Malley has pledged to use some of the savings from ending the death penalty to improving services for people who have lost loved ones to murder.
We can help make that happen.
Maryland’s death penalty will be over. That is a triumph in itself.
But justice is about more than just the absence of injustice.
Maryland has the opportunity to fill the space that the broken death penalty used to occupy with something that can actually work to make communities safer and healthier. And that should be way more American than killing someone with an apple pie.
Photo by FEWhite2 released under Creative Commons License