"I Had No Idea What I Was Getting Into:" Amnesty’s Death Penalty Repeal Campaign in Maryland

March 19, 2013

After decades of work towards abolition, activists were finally rewarded when the Maryland House of Delegates passed the death penalty repeal bill (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images).
After decades of work towards abolition, activists were finally rewarded when the Maryland House of Delegates passed the death penalty repeal bill (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images).


Last week we had great news – Maryland’s General Assembly voted to repeal Maryland’s death penalty! The bill is now in the hands of Governor Martin O’Malley, who will certainly sign it as one of the most outspoken proponents of the bill.

Amnesty activists celebrated last week – but the victory came after years of hard work. Amnesty International has campaigned for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty since 1977, the same year that the USA restarted executions after 10 years without capital punishment. In 1978, Maryland passed a law reinstating the death penalty. Amnesty volunteers and staff, as part of an increasingly broad and dynamic coalition, have been working to repeal that law for most of its existence. This year, 35 years after its reinstatement, Maryland’s death penalty looks at last to be on its way out.

This week’s special blog series tells the story of Amnesty International’s involvement in this campaign, featuring the memories and insights of volunteers and staff who played critical roles over more than three decades.

Take action to thank Maryland’s leadership for their support of death penalty repeal and urge them to ensure that funding to support victims’ families in included, as originally promised, in this year’s state budget.

By Cathy Knepper, Amnesty International’s State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator from 1983-2007

In 1982, I joined local Group 82, based at the Unitarian Church in Rockville, Maryland. After a little while, I felt comfortable enough to ask co-leader and good friend Zana Miller what I could do to help with the group. Zana responded that every group was supposed to have an anti-death penalty coordinator and they did not have one. Would I be interested in taking on that responsibility?

I did not have to think even a moment to answer, as I had been opposed to the death penalty from a young age, having made the not-particularly-astute observation that people are fallible. This led to a visit from Jim Hill, the “SDPAC” (State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator) for Maryland, although this was almost two decades before the acronym was in general use. He was a kind, genial man with a snowy white beard. My 3- and 6-year-old sons swarmed all over him, I think hoping he had something to do with Christmas. Jim explained my duties, mainly to keep Group 82 informed, to work with our legislators on bills, and to attend vigils and protests.

After a couple of years, Jim ended his work and I became Amnesty International’s Maryland SDPAC, a position I held for 20 years. Fortunately, Dick Dowling of the Maryland Catholic Conference had decided that Dwight Sullivan of the ACLU, and I, were teachable. He took us under his wing and I quickly decided we were being taught by a master. This was a good thing because the times were extremely difficult.

Most Americans believed that the death penalty was as “American as apple pie.” People actually hated us, when they weren’t ignoring us entirely. In one particular Maryland execution, the family was particularly vocal, especially a brother of the young woman who had been murdered. His angry statements were covered in excruciating detail by the press. Since then, some murder victim family members have become among the strongest voices for abolition of the death penalty, in Maryland and beyond.

The harsh language extended into the state capitol. One year, Delegate Salima Marriott had managed to get an appointment to speak with a very prominent Senator, who had always been our most significant opponent. She didn’t want to go by herself, so she grabbed me and took me along. We were in a large public area outside of his chambers. When he realized we wished to discuss the death penalty, he became extremely vexed. Finally he began screaming at us, carrying on about serial murderers who chopped up the bodies of their victims and ate them.

My work, year after year, meant meetings upon meetings, and bills creating studies and commissions that yielded report after report. As I volunteered both for Amnesty and on the board of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, we chipped away at the death penalty in the margins, eliminating it for minors (1987) and the “mentally retarded” (1989). All of this was done with partners such as the ACLU and the faith community.

We used legislative committee hearings as a chance to educate the committee members, the press, and through them, the general public. We gained important allies when TV and filmmakers began to create not only documentaries, but fiction that caught the attention of the public. Our message that the death penalty was racist and convicted the innocent began to be absorbed by the public; this was a huge help. Changing demographics helped also, as a state legislature consisting of Democrats of the old south, began to give way to one dominated by Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

One last story and my very favorite: In 2002, I was signed up to testify before Senator Baker’s Judicial Proceedings Committee. After waiting for the usual four hours, the senator announced that each speaker would have just two minutes to make their case. The first up was Senator Brian Frosh from Montgomery County. Baker made nasty comments and belittled Frosh as he attempted to speak, the first time I had seen a senator treat a fellow senator this way. When it was my turn, Baker cut me off after 30 seconds or so. I was angry enough to protest that I had not had my two minutes, but I was sent packing. That year Baker lost his senate seat, and thus was no longer chairman of this committee. Imagine my satisfaction when I learned that the new head was none other than Brian Frosh!

My hope had always been for state abolition in my lifetime; that we have achieved it will take a while to sink in. We reached our goal due to the unwavering commitment of a great many people who truly believed in the democratic process.

Hear Cathy on the Kojo Nnamdi show in November 2005 in advance of Maryland’s last execution.