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Why momentum is shifting toward repealing the death penalty

Benjamin Todd Jealous, Martin O’MalleyThe Christian Science Monitor
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Next month Maryland will become the sixth state in six years to abolish the death penalty. The Free State is the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to repeal capital punishment, and we believe that other states will soon follow.

There are practical reasons why momentum is steadily shifting toward repeal: The death penalty is expensive, it does not work, and it is administered with a clear racial bias. Repealing it is a matter of justice, a matter of public safety, and a matter of effective governance.

The death penalty does not make Americans stronger or more secure as a people, and it does not make our laws more just. One of the most jarring facts about our modern criminal justice system is that defendants accused of murdering white victims are significantly more likely to face a death sentence than those accused of killing non-white victims.

This was certainly true in Maryland. A 2003 study showed that defendants charged with killing a white victim were significantly more likely to receive a death sentence. In Delaware, recent research revealed that 73 percent of death-row cases since 1972 involved a white victim. This data helped bolster efforts to pass the repeal bill in the Delaware state Senate last month.

The death penalty is also an ineffective deterrent. In 2011, the average murder rate in states with the death penalty, weighted for population, was 4.9 per 100,000 people. In states without it, the weighted murder rate was 4.1 per 100,000 people.

Nevertheless, Maryland taxpayers have spent millions of dollars on death penalty cases each year. Capital punishment in Maryland costs three times as much as life in prison without parole. Every extra dollar spent on the death penalty is a dollar not invested to stop crimes from being committed in the first place, or to support the families of murder victims.

Most troubling is the very real possibility that an innocent person can be put to death – and there is no way to bring a wrongfully executed person back to life. Each year from 2000 and 2011, an average of five death row inmates was exonerated nationwide. In Maryland, between 1995 and 2007, our state’s reversal rate for the death penalty was 80 percent.

This point was driven home nationwide by the case of Troy Davis in Georgia. Davis was put to death in September 2011 even though seven of nine eyewitnesses recanted the testimony that convicted him. On the night of his final appeal in September 2011, the world was watching; the Twitter hashtag #TooMuchDoubt marked the second-most-active Twitter event of the year. According to a Gallup poll released one month after his death, 35 percent of Americans opposed the death penalty – the highest level in nearly 40 years.

Across our ever-more-closely connected world, the majority of public executions now take place in just seven countries: Iran, Iraq, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United States. Whether one believes that the death penalty is wrong on moral grounds or not, more and more Americans are beginning to realize that capital punishment is wasteful, unjust, and tragically subject to human error.

Besides Delaware, legislators in Colorado, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Kansas are weighing repeal of the death penalty. As momentum continues to shift toward repeal in state after state, there is real hope that America will soon join the rest of the free world in abolishing the death penalty once and for all.

Martin O’Malley is the governor of Maryland. Benjamin Todd Jealous is the president and chief executive officer of the NAACP.