ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Opponents of capital punishment marked a milestone Thursday as Maryland became the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line to abolish the death penalty.
The passage was a significant victory for Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Roman Catholic who opposes capital punishment and is considering seeking the 2016 presidential nomination. Death penalty opponents said the governor helped maintain the national momentum of repeal efforts by making Maryland the sixth state in as many years to abolish capital punishment.
"I don't know exactly what the timing is, but over the longer arc of history I think you'll see more and more states repeal the death penalty," O'Malley said in a brief interview after the bill signing. "It's wasteful. It's ineffective. It doesn't work to reduce violent crime."
NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous, who worked to get the repeal bill passed, noted the significance of a Democratic governor south of the Mason-Dixon line with presidential aspirations leading an effort to ban capital punishment. Jealous noted that in 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton left the presidential campaign trail to oversee the execution of a man who had killed a police officer, a move widely viewed as an effort to shed the Democratic Party's image as soft on crime.
"Our governor has also just redefined what it means to have a political future in this country," Jealous said. "You know, it was just 20 years ago that a young governor with possibilities below the Mason-Dixon stopped during his presidential campaign" to oversee an execution.
Maryland is the 18th state to abolish the death penalty. Neighboring Delaware also made a push to repeal it this year, but the bill has stalled.
Diane Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Maryland is keeping the momentum going for other states to follow.
"It doesn't always happen overnight," Rust-Tierney said. "The more people study it, the more people understand it. This was a seven-year effort here in Maryland."
Supporters of capital punishment said the governor was taking away an important tool to protect the public. Del. Neil Parrott, a Washington County Republican, criticized the governor for moving ahead with banning the death penalty during the same session as he pushed for a gun-control bill to restrict firearms access to law-abiding citizens.