After years of contentious debate, Maryland last year did away with its death penalty. The legislation, however, did not apply to the four individuals who were already awaiting execution on the state’s death row.
That exception to the new law has created a controversy that needn’t have occurred, but can be easily put to rest by Gov. Martin O’Malley — if he has the political will to do so.
To begin with, when Maryland finally decided it was against executing people, the new law should not have left four prisoners on death row. The General Assembly should have resolved the matter completely and made the law applicable to everyone. Failure to do that has created the current controversy.
A recent Washington Post story reported that Attorney General Douglas Gansler says the state does not have the legal authority to execute the men because it no longer has regulations in place detailing how to administer lethal injections. And with no death penalty on the books, the state can’t develop new regulations on carrying out executions. That reasoning sounds a bit Catch-22-like to us, but it nevertheless leaves the four condemned men in limbo, which Gansler says violates their right to due process.
Wicomico County State’s Attorney Matthew Maciarello takes issue with the state’s position, and says legislation could be introduced that would explicitly allow the executions of the men still on death row. That seems possible to us, considering the law banning executions did not apply to the four in the first place. However, it also seems possible to us that the General Assembly could pass new legislation that would make the no-execution law applicable to everyone.
The far easiest path to resolving this quandary is for O’Malley to simply commute the sentences of all four to life without parole. We think that would be the right thing to do. With the new law, Maryland decided that it was politically and morally against capital punishment. To execute anyone after that law became effective doesn’t make any sense at all.
O’Malley may be waiting for another solution to this matter. One of the condemned men has appealed to the state, which in turn is asking for an appellate court to resentence him. If that happens, it would set a precedent for the other three men.
Another of the four, however, has petitioned O’Malley himself to commute his sentence. So far, the governor hasn’t acted on the appeal, and The Post reported that his office last Thursday “declined to comment ... on the governor’s deliberations.”
O’Malley can put to rest this current conundrum by commuting the sentences of all four men, which would also put the quietus, once and for all, on Maryland’s long, divisive struggle with the death penalty.
That’s exactly what he should do.