Last 4 on Md. death row to have sentences commuted
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) – In one of his final acts as governor, Democrat Martin O’Malley announced Wednesday that he will commute the sentences of Maryland’s four remaining death-row inmates to life in prison.
Two years ago, the General Assembly abolished the death penalty in the state, making the ultimate sentence in new cases life in prison without the possibility of parole.
That left five previously sentenced inmates on death row; one of them, John Booth-El, died in prison this year. Maryland’s attorney general has argued that executing prisoners would be illegal without an existing death penalty law.
“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 said he had met or spoken with many of the relatives of the people killed by the inmates, and he thanked them for talking with him about the cases.
But he said that his failing to act at this point in the legal process would “needlessly and callously subject survivors, and the people of Maryland, to the ordeal of an endless appeals process, with unpredictable twists and turns, and without any hope of finality or closure.”
O’Malley will leave office next month after having served two terms, the limit in Maryland.
“We would like to thank Gov. O’Malley for taking what was a tough and courageous moral decision,” Gary Proctor, one of the attorneys for death-row inmate Heath Burch, said in a statement. “It was indeed time that Maryland’s machinery of death was consigned to the history books.”
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a death penalty supporter, criticized the governor’s decision. Two of Maryland’s death-row inmates, Anthony Grandison and Vernon Evans, were convicted in the 1983 contract killing in Baltimore County of two witnesses who were scheduled to testify against Grandison in a federal drug case.
“Death was the decision of the jury. These sentences were lawfully imposed and upheld numerous times on appeal,” Shellenberger said in a statement. “The governor should not be using his last days in office to show any mercy to these cold, calculating killers.”
Robert Biddle, an attorney for death row inmate Jody Lee Miles, argued in a letter to O’Malley last month that the governor should not commute his client’s sentence to life without parole because Miles “deserves the opportunity to make a case” in court for a life sentence with the possibility of parole. Biddle declined to comment Wednesday beyond what he said in the letter.
Democratic Attorney General Doug Gansler, who is also leaving office next month, argued three weeks ago before a state appellate court that Miles should be re-sentenced to life without parole.
He outlined two main reasons. First, Maryland’s highest court ruled in 2006 that a legislative panel needed to approve protocols for lethal injection before an execution could take place, a step that has yet to be taken. Second, when lawmakers banned capital punishment last year, Gansler said they also repealed a law that enabled the state’s prison system to introduce lethal injection protocols.
While his arguments applied directly only to Miles, Gansler said they opened a door for attorneys for the other three inmates to seek new sentences.
Miles was convicted of a 1997 death in Mardela Springs, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Burch was sentenced to death for killing a couple in 1995 in Capitol Heights, near Washington.