Our statewide coalition of over 30 state and national organizations made death penalty repeal a front burner issue during 2012 legislative session, even as legislative leaders tried to sideline it from an already full agenda. (That loaded agenda was still to play out and would result in a May special session to finish the budget.) We mobilized an early and constant presence in our state capital throughout the session. . .
Getting on the Agenda January 10
Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP joined forces with MD CASE and the statewide coalition for a breakfast briefing with legislative allies followed by a hard-hitting press conference. The gathering received much coverage and put the death penalty on the agenda as the legislative session opened. “The death penalty is wasteful and ineffective in Maryland,” Jealous told the Annapolis press corps. “There are enormous flaws in how the penalty is sought and applied, and racial disparities are rife. It is not possible to “fix” this broken system, and Maryland legislators should act this year and end punishment in the state once and for all.” Former Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey, Rev. Delmar Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, and primary repeal bill sponsors, Senator Lisa Gladden and Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, also urged votes for repeals, flanked by other legislators, clergy, and state leaders.
Upping the Ante MLK Day, January 16
Honoring one of our most famous death penalty abolitionists, we charged forward on MLK Day with our annual lobby night. It began with an outside rally organized by Amnesty International and students from Howard University. The featured speaker was Kim Davis, sister of Troy Davis, executed in Georgia in September despite serious doubts about his guilt. She was joined by Maryland’s own death row exoneree, Kirk Bloodsworth, and Maryland NAACP President Gerald Stansbury. Davis was also a special guest introduced on the Senate floor that night to a standing ovation. Over a hundred people joined us in Annapolis, talking directly to dozens of legislators, despite a sprinkler flood in the Senate building!
Reaching thousands February
Moveon.org sent actions alert for repeal, including an appeal from Kirk Bloodsworth, to its 118,000 Maryland activists. Change.org also mobilized its nearly 30,000 folks. Thousands of emails poured into the General Assembly.
Faith-filled and Unanimous Ash Wednesday, Feb. 22
Bishops and executive leaders of all of Maryland’s major Christian denominations joined the Baltimore Board of Rabbis (BBR) to make their unprecedented unity for repeal heard in Annapolis. The religious lobby day was initiated by the Ecumenical Leader’s Group (ELG) and the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council. The day began early with an Ash Wednesday service at historic St. Anne’s Parish in Church Circle, celebrated by the Right Reverend Eugene Taylor Sutton, Bishop of the Diocese of Maryland of the Episcopal Church and chair of the ELG.
After the service, Bishop Sutton joined other religious leaders to march the block from Church Circle to Lawyers Mall for a press conference. Rabbi Moshe Weisblum of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Annapolis spoke for the BBR. Rev. Alvin Gwynn, President of Baltimore’s Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, also spoke along with leaders representing Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. The clergy met with key legislators afterwards. Also participating
were the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland and students from Bishop McNamara Catholic High School in Forestville.
A “Religious Sign-on Letter in Support of Repealing the Death Penalty,” signed by nearly 250 Maryland clergy and lay leaders, was released and hand delivered to all members of the General Assembly. Working with People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, we aim to get 1,000 signers by 2013. (Sign online at http://mdcase.org/node/198.)
Many of the religious leaders returned on March 7 to testify and show their unity at the Senate Committee hearing, and again on March 20 for the House hearing.
Informing the Debate Late February
MD CASE released a status report on Maryland’s death penalty, detailing continued flaws and disparities in its application. The report also includes an appeal for repeal to the General Assembly signed by over three dozen Maryland attorneys, including former Governor Harry Hughes and former Attorneys General Stephen Sachs and Joseph Curran.
The report has helped change the debate in Annapolis – where death penalty proponents try to argue that 2009 changes to Maryland’s law have fixed our death penalty. Drawing on decades of scholarship, the report emphasizes the continued risk of Maryland executing an innocent person, new arbitrariness, and additional burdens on murder victims’ families and taxpayers. It sparked a hard-hitting editorial in The Washington Post on March 6:
“By ducking the issue, they are leaving in place a costly, inefficient, unjust and dysfunctional system that exacts a terrible toll on the families of murder victims. Rather than legislating and leading, state lawmakers are in denial.”
“Three years ago, an effort to abolish the death penalty narrowly failed in the General Assembly, which instead restricted it to cases where there is DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or video linking the suspect to a murder. But the legislature’s reform fixed nothing; if anything, it codified a system even more arbitrary than the one it replaced. . . Nor did the changes in the Maryland law address the racial and jurisdictional disparities in the death penalty’s application.”
Survivors of Homicide Victims Speak Out March 7 & 20
– Bonnita Spike, speaking to the media for passage of “Death Penalty Repeal and Appropriation from Savings to Aid Survivors of Homicide Victims”
The voices of survivors of murder victims for repeal rang clearer than any previous year.
The day of the first bill hearing, March 7 in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, family members held a press conference. They highlighted an appropriation to aid survivors from the savings of repeal, included in the repeal bill for the first time this year.
Vicki Schieber, whose daughter was murdered, called on the legislature to do more to support family members grieving the murder of a loved one. “Seeking the death penalty does not provide comfort to families of murder victims,” said Schieber, who served on the 2008 Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which recommended repealing capital punishment and increasing support to these families. “Instead, it prolongs the criminal proceedings and makes it far more difficult for families to heal. It’s time to invest in resources that will help families as they struggle to recover from violent acts.”
NAACP CEO Ben Jealous, who lost his cousin to murder in Columbia, made a second trip to Annapolis to stand with survivors at both the press conference and the hearing that afternoon. Also speaking for repeal were MD CASE’s own Bonnita Spikes, whose husband was murdered, and Marty Price, whose nephew, a Western Maryland police officer, was murdered.
March 20 was an especially emotional day in the House Judiciary Committee. After waiting all afternoon, murder victims family members led off the testimony. Pro-death penalty committee members belligerently questioned them, leading the State President of the NAACP to leave the room in protest. Ultimately, Judiciary never acted on the bill.
Based on fiscal notes on repeal bills in recent years that assess resulting savings of over $1 million in the state budget, the appropriation in the repeal would redirect a modest $500,000 annually to the Maryland Victims of Crime Fund, earmarked for the rights and needs of survivors of homicide victims. These funds would be administered by the State Board of Victim Services, under the authority of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control & Prevention, allowing new and much needed support to non-profit and governmental services for survivors.