Race, Politics and Maryland’s Lingering Death Penalty

January 2, 2013

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley
Maryland Governor O’Malley Joins Pastors’ March on Annapolis to repeal the death penalty in Maryland in 2009.

While a New York Times editorial highlights the fact that states are “retreating” from capital punishment due to “evolving standards of decency,” very little evolution is evident in Maryland’s political circles, where a stacked Senate committee has for years been the one and only stumbling block to death penalty repeal.

As Gerald Stansbury of the NAACP writes in the Baltimore Sun, 75% of murder victims in Maryland are African American, and almost 50% of murders go unsolved each year. Yet the capital punishment system diverts a massive amount of resources to cases in which the victims were white – all 5 Maryland inmates executed and all 5 current residents of Maryland’s death row were convicted of killing white victims.

There is only one African American on Maryland’s 11 member Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (despite the state’s 31% overall African American population). As Stansbury puts it: “right now, the Judicial Proceedings Committee has jurisdiction over all criminal justice issues but fails to adequately represent those who are affected by these issues the most — people of color.”

Meanwhile, four of the committee members are from Baltimore County, the most pro-death penalty county in the state.  It is known that both the state’s House and Senate would most likely vote for repeal if it got to the floor, and that the Governor would sign it into law. But with the Senate committee stacked this way, Maryland’s legislators have never been able to actually cast their votes.

When it comes to capital punishment, standards of decency have indeed evolved. But in Maryland, a more decent policy – death penalty repeal – has been stymied by old fashioned politics. The makeup of the 2013 Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is expected to be announced soon. Will its composition be more representative, or more of the same?