Maryland Empties Death Row By Commuting Every Inmate's Sentence In A Game-Changing Move

Governor Martin O'Malley, a widely touted possible presidential candidate for the Democrats in 2016, has nonetheless actually stuck his neck out on a fraught issue: O'Malley commuted the state's last four death sentences, and in doing so, has effectively closed the history book on Maryland's use of capital punishment.

The four convicts in question — Jody Lee Miles, Vernon Evans, Heath Burch, and Anthony Grandison — were the last four people remaining on death row in the entire state. It was a thin field that wasn't going to grow any thicker — in 2013, the state legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty. There was just one notable exception made: anybody who was already convicted and awaiting execution prior to the law's passage could still be put to death.

O'Malley signed that bill into law, and Wednesday, he commuted those last four death sentences into life sentences, meaning that capital punishment in Maryland is now well and truly, officially over. Obviously, nothing is absolutely permanent, and a future legislature and governor could someday undo this change. But suffice to say, this is pretty major news. O'Malley described his reasoning Wednesday.

In the final analysis, there is one truth that stands between and before all of us.That truth is this — few of us would ever wish for our children or grandchildren to kill another human being or to take part in the killing of another human being. The legislature has expressed this truth by abolishing the death penalty in Maryland. For these reasons, I intend to commute Maryland’s four remaining death sentences to life without the possibility of parole. It is my hope that these commutations might bring about a greater degree of closure for all of the survivors and their families.

Mike Simons/Getty Images News/Getty Images

O'Malley's is at the very least taking a risk here, both in backing the death penalty's end and commuting the sentences, despite whatever ambitions to national office he may (or, hey, may not) have. At the very least, it doesn't match up with the usual, convention wisdom for somebody in his position — for a less-heralded Democrat with a chance to make waves in 2016, making waves on the death penalty is tricky business. While a liberal base might find the notion attractive, the intersection of death penalty politics and rhetoric on crime and punishment can impact presidential campaigns — just ask Michael Dukakis.

It's an institutional that enjoys majority support among Americans, as well, as least insofar as historical polls have shown. Gallup's tracking poll on the death penalty, last updated on Oct. 23, showed 63 percent of Americans support its use on convicted murderers.

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

According to the Washington Post, O'Malley's decision came as very upsetting news to at least one family in Maryland — that of 71-year-old Mary Francis Moore, whose parents was fatally stabbed by Burch in 1996. Moore expressed dismay in the decision, and a loss of trust in the justice system writ large, admitting that while Burch was unlikely to ever be killed, she liked that he would have to stay on death row regardless.

I'm very devastated. I’m not disappointed. I’m devastated. I knew this was hanging over him, and that he didn’t have much of a life up in Cumberland. Now, I believe they’ll bring him down to another prison and he’ll have a life, a social life with other inmates, which I don’t appreciate.

Image: Getty Images