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Death Penalty Repeal Looks Likely

NAACP photos
NAACP instrumental in garnering support for O'Malley-backed measure to end capital punishment.

Gerald Stansbury was almost giddy when he confirmed that Maryland appears on the verge of abolishing its death penalty. "I think the prospects are really good," he said. "It looks like we are going to get this out of the committees. We have a lot of support from the senators as well as people in the House, so I am so optimistic that we are going to make it through this time."

If that happens, the success will largely be due to Stansbury and his colleagues at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a 103-year-old group some dismissed a few years ago as no longer relevant. At the state and national level, the NAACP has poured resources and shoe leather into the cause. It partnered with other advocacy groups to conduct an education campaign, using phone banks and social media to highlight the flaws of Maryland’s current capital punishment system. Chief among the arguments is that the death penalty is very expensive and doesn’t work. Five men have been languishing on Maryland’s death row for years with no resolution of their cases in sight. Stansbury, who is president of the state NAACP chapter, says the more you learn about the death penalty, the more impractical it seems. Stansbury wants people to research as much as they can.

"Amnesty International is a great resource. They can Google it and find out more and more about how the death penalty has not worked. Personally, you may have feelings about the death penalty, but when you start talking to some of the victims, you will realize that they want closure as well as we do," he said.

A key turning point in this year’s repeal campaign came when Stansbury and NAACP national president Ben Jealous were able to secure the backing of Governor Martin O’Malley. The governor had supported a repeal effort in 2009 only to see it blocked by a State Senate committee. This time he wanted advance assurance of success. Within days, Stansbury and his partners were able to give him that. Senate President Mike Miller agreed to get the repeal bill to the Senate floor, where supporters now believe they have the majority they need. Senator Joe Getty of Carroll County,  said that "obviously, Governor O’Malley putting the death penalty on his agenda for this year does help to provide some momentum and the governor always has some leverage that he can use to shoehorn some votes out of what has been a reluctant Senate in the past." Getty would like to expand uses of the death penalty in Maryland to include school shootings.

But Getty and Miller have both cautioned that successful death penalty repeal would likely be petitioned to statewide referendum. Stansbury professed to be unconcerned. "Well," he said, "we got the Dream Act through, the Marriage Equality through with the referendum. I think our people are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for."

With an agenda that includes support for children of undocumented immigrants, same sex marriage and off-shore wind power, as well as death penalty repeal, this is not your grandfather’s NAACP. Just in time for the group’s second century.