Maryland governor commutes 4 death sentences: Could mercy resonate beyond state?

Outgoing Gov. Martin O'Malley on Wednesday commuted the sentences of all four of Maryland's death-row inmates to life in prison without parole. 

Patrick Semansky/AP/File
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks with reporters in his office inside the Maryland State House in Annapolis, Md., April 7.

In a case that could add an electoral twist to the death penalty debate, a likely Democratic presidential contender, Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, on Wednesday commuted the sentences of the state’s four death row inmates to life in prison without parole.

To be sure, the move – fueled by Governor O’Malley's philosophical view that executions "make every citizen a party to a legalized killing as punishment" – will be seen in some quarters as a challenge to other states facing growing legal and scientific challenges over the ethical and chemical realities of putting the ultimate sanction into action.

It could also test the poignancy of the death penalty as a political issue in a country where 60 percent of Americans support the death penalty, but most do so, as Cornell law professor John Blume told the National Journal, not out of passion but as a “reflexive opinion.”

But while O’Malley’s act of mercy may resonate far beyond Maryland, it’s also in some ways a no-brainer, particular to Maryland’s political dynamics.

After all, O’Malley led a legislative effort two years ago to abolish the death penalty in Maryland – only one of three states, including New Mexico and Connecticut, to do so.

But that law applied only to future convictions, meaning that it left four convicted murderers – Vernon Evans, Anthony Grandison, Heath Burch, and Jody Lee Miles – in a legal limbo. That situation was exacerbated by a ruling by the state’s attorney general that the state can no longer execute anyone legally because the vote to abolish the death penalty left the state without a legal framework for how to carry out lethal injections.

The commutations come only a few weeks before O’Malley leaves office to make room for the next governor, Republican Larry Hogan. Governor-elect Hogan has said he had no plans to challenge that ruling in order to complete the four executions.

“To shift their terms to life in prison without parole is not only the right thing for the governor to do; it’s also, at this point, the only sensible thing to do,” The Washington Post editorial board argued in November. “Having made the moral case for abolition so eloquently, [O’Malley] should have no trouble making the practical case for commutation to life without parole for the four remaining condemned men.”

Several states have put moratoriums on the sanction as courts hash out the ethics of a variety of death penalty drug “cocktails” that led this year to botched executions in Ohio, Missouri, and Arizona.

Thirty-eight percent of US death row inmates have been exonerated since 1976 on a variety of grounds, and O’Malley has argued that “its imperfections can and do result in the occasional killing of innocent people.”

Meanwhile, US juries, even in death penalty states like Texas, continue to condemn fewer and fewer people to death, according to a Dec. 19 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. That study found that 2013 marked the 13th straight year with a decrease in the US death row population, which now hovers at just below 3,000. Five US states – California, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Alabama – hold 60 percent of the nation’s death row inmates.

“The question at hand is whether any public good is served by allowing these essentially un-executable sentences to stand,” O’Malley said in a statement. “In my judgment, leaving these death sentences in place does not serve the public good of the people of Maryland—present or future.”

The governor had checked with the families of the victims before deciding to commute the sentences. At least one family wanted O'Malley to let the death sentence stand, according to published reports.

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