The failed effort to give Maryland voters the opportunity to return to the death penalty and executions is instructive. As proponents of a pro-death penalty ballot initiative stated, "The groundswell of support across the state just wasn't there."
That is true of the death penalty in Maryland and everywhere else in the country where it continues to be used. Support for the idea of capital punishment does not necessarily yield itself to being the kind of deeply-held belief that makes you want to go your place of worship or the supermarket and sign up your friends and family for most. Many who support capital punishment do so by default and most people just don't think about the death penalty that much.
When people do consider capital punishment, they are deeply ambivalent. Most supporters will acknowledge that what we have now requires a serious overhaul.
To what end?
The dwindling numbers of localities that continue to impose death sentences and carry out executions, have little to show for the time and energy devoted.
But what we often see is that programs such as early childhood education; mental health services; support for at -risk families and victims of crime go wanting while a handful of executions are pursued.
And seemingly almost weekly someone new is released from prison after serving years for a crime he or she did not commit. A sobering reminder, along with the fact that 142 innocent people have actually been released from death row, that we can make mistakes that cannot be undone.
Events in Maryland suggest that we can put aside the old idea that the public clings to the death penalty beyond all reason. The death penalty is becoming rarer and rarer precisely because the public is quite willing to let it go.
When policymakers do the careful work of examining capital punishment as it is used in their states today, they find that it is unfair, unworkable, and does not align with our vision of our better selves.
If the work is serious and the consideration thoughtful, voters will support a determination that the death penalty has outlived its usefulness.
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty is committed to advancing a thoughtful dialogue about capital punishment. There is much to learn from the six states that have ended the practice in recent years.
Justice Thurgood Marshall observed that the public could only support the death penalty if it knew little about the practice. He reasoned that the more the public learns about capital punishment, the more it would come to reject it.
Maryland had a robust debate on the death penalty over many years. It studied the practice and made a concerted effort to fix the many problems. But still the risk of executing an innocent could not be eliminated.
So the people of Maryland said:" No to the death penalty. We can do better".
Amen and Amen.