O’Malley to commute death row sentences

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) – In one of his final acts as governor, Democrat Martin O’Malley announced Wednesday that he will commute the sentences of four death-row inmates to life in prison without parole.

Two years ago, the General Assembly abolished the death penalty, leaving five inmates on death row. One of them, John Booth-El, died in prison this year.

The governor said he had met or spoken with many of the relatives of the people killed by the inmates. Some victim family members and prosecutors were upset with O’Malley’s decision.

O’Malley said that if he didn’t commute the sentences 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.”

None of the executions was imminent because the state didn’t have a procedure to carry one out.

O’Malley, who is considering running for president in 2016, will leave office next month after two terms, the limit in Maryland. The governor is a Catholic and longtime opponent of capital punishment.

“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.”

Mary Frances Moore, whose father and stepmother were fatally stabbed by Burch in 1995 in Capitol Heights, said she was “devastated” by the governor’s decision.

“I think he was hoping I would give him the OK on it, to give him life without parole, and I didn’t give him that,” Moore, 71, said Wednesday.

September 26, 2023 | (Amy Hunter, WTOP Staff)

She fears a future governor could grant parole to Burch.

Matthew Maciarello, the Wicomico County state’s attorney, said O’Malley met with Dottie Atkinson _ the mother of Edward Atkinson, who was killed in a 1997 robbery and murder by Jody Lee Miles in Mardela Springs on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Maciarello, who attended the meeting, said while the family believes death was the appropriate sentence, they understand the political and legal realities.

“They believe that the actions taken by the governor will provide a degree of closure that could not be achieved through protracted litigation,” Maciarello said. The family requested privacy and asked him to make a statement for them, he said.

Miles’ attorney, Robert Biddle, argued in a letter to O’Malley last month that the governor should not commute his client’s sentence because Miles deserves the opportunity to argue in court for parole. Biddle said Wednesday that Miles would not agree to the commutation, arguing that his client deserves a chance at parole because of his remorse, his “outstanding record in prison” and other factors.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a death penalty supporter, criticized the governor’s move. Two 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.”

Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, a Republican who takes office Jan. 21, said he wasn’t going to second-guess the decision.

“There is only one governor at a time, and I’m not in a place to second-guess what is probably one of the most difficult decisions a governor may have to make,” Hogan said in a statement.

Only five Maryland inmates were executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. The last execution was in 2005 under Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

Below is the statement that O’Malley released:

“In a representative government, state executions make every citizen a party to a legalized killing as punishment.

“Two years ago, after much debate and consideration, the Maryland General Assembly abolished the death penalty in our State replacing the sentence with life without the possibility of parole.

“The General Assembly’s abolition of the death penalty was not challenged in referendum.

“There are four inmates who currently sit on Maryland’s death row.

“Recent appeals and the latest opinion on this matter by Maryland’s Attorney General have called into question the legality of carrying out earlier death sentences — sentences imposed prior to abolition. In fact, the Attorney General has opined that the carrying out of prior sentences is now illegal in the absence of an existing statute.

“I have now met or spoken with many of the survivors of the victims of these brutal murders.

“They are all good and decent people who have generously granted me the courtesy of discussing the cases of their individual family members. I am deeply grateful and appreciative of their willingness to speak with me.

“They have borne their grief bravely along with the additional torment of an un-ending legal process. If endless death penalty appeals were to continue, these family members would, no doubt, persevere through that process with continued courage and fortitude. Of this I have no doubt.

“The question at hand is whether any public good is served by allowing these essentially un-executable sentences to stand.

“In my judgment, leaving these death sentences in place does not serve the public good of the people of Maryland — present or future.

“Gubernatorial inaction — at this point in the legal process — would, in my judgment, 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.

“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.”

 (Copyright The Associated Press and WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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