ANNAPOLIS — It's been eight years since Maryland executed a convicted killer, and that could be the last time if the General Assembly, as expected, gives final passage this week to a bill to abolish capital punishment.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has been pushing for the change since his first year in office. Now the Democratic-controlled legislature seems poised to make Maryland the 18th state in the U.S. to do away with the death penalty.
A repeal bill has already been approved by the state Senate and it was expected to win final passage from the House of Delegates on Friday.
The House advanced the legislation this week after delegates rejected nearly 20 amendments, mostly from Republicans, aimed at keeping capital punishment for the most heinous crimes.
If passed, life without the possibility of parole would be the most severe sentence in the state.
Supporters of repeal argue that the death penalty is costly, error-prone, racially biased and a poor deterrent of crime. But opponents say it is a necessary tool to punish lawbreakers who commit the most egregious crimes.
Passage would mark a major victory for O'Malley, who has long pushed for banning the death penalty.
Maryland has five men on death row. The measure would not apply to them retroactively, but the legislation makes clear that the governor can commute their sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The state's last execution took place in 2005, during the administration of Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich. He resumed executions after a moratorium had been in place pending a 2003 University of Maryland study, which found significant racial and geographic disparity in how the death penalty was carried out.
Capital punishment has been on hold in Maryland since a December 2006 ruling by the state's highest court that the lethal injection protocols weren't properly approved by a legislative committee. The committee, whose co-chairs oppose capital punishment, has yet to sign off on protocols.
O'Malley, a Catholic, expressed support for repeal legislation in 2007, but it stalled in a Senate committee.
Maryland has a large Catholic population, and the church opposes the death penalty.
According to the Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services website, Maryland has only executed five inmates since 1976. There were three in the 1990s, and two when Ehrlich was governor.
In contrast, neighboring Virginia has executed 110 inmates since the U.S. Supreme Court restored capital punishment in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. However, Virginia's death row population has dwindled to eight from a peak of 57 in 1995, in part because fewer death sentences are being handed down in the state amid an increased acceptance of life without parole as a reasonable alternative.
The center said death sentences have declined by 75 percent and executions by 60 percent nationally since the 1990s.