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Maryland House to vote on death penalty repeal after Senate OK

By Lacey Johnson

(Reuters) - The Maryland House of Delegates may vote to overturn the state's death penalty as early as Friday, making it the 18th U.S. state to abolish executions.

Legislators from both parties predicted passage of the bill in the House, which votes a week after the Senate approved the repeal. The measure would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole.

The bill is Governor Martin O'Malley's second attempt to overturn capital punishment since 2009, and he has pledged to sign it into law.

"We believe that the outcome will be favorable," said the governor's press secretary, Takirra Winfield.

When O'Malley introduced the legislation in January, he said the death penalty was expensive and did not work.

"Year after year, states which have a death penalty have actually had a higher murder rate than states which do not have a death penalty," he said.

The governor also pointed to a 2008 study conducted by the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment that found the state's death penalty sentencing to be racially biased. Of the five men currently serving time on Maryland's death row, four are African-Americans whose victims were white.

But some Maryland legislators insist the death penalty is necessary to bring justice to victims and their families.

Republican Delegate Gail Bates said she planned to vote against the repeal because she believes a maximum term of life in prison simply is not enough.

"Lawyers will bargain down from that, instead of bargaining down from the death penalty," she said.

Bates said she also feared for the safety of correctional officers, who are at risk of being attacked by lifelong criminals with little to lose.

Another opponent, Republican Delegate Kathy Afzali, said: "I am someone who believes that there are some crimes that are so heinous and so horrible that they do deserve the death penalty."

Her attempt to amend the bill to allow the death penalty in extreme cases, such as mass killings and school shootings, was voted down on Wednesday.

Currently, five men are on Maryland's Death Row. If capital punishment is repealed, the governor will decide their fate on a case-by-case basis.

Since Maryland reinstated the death penalty in 1978, some 58 people have been sentenced to death, while only five sentences have been carried out, according to Jane Henderson, executive director of the nonprofit Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. Henderson said the vast majority of sentences were changed to life without parole.

Maryland's last execution was in 2005.

Five states - Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, and New Jersey - have repealed the death penalty since 2007, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A total of 17 U.S. states have put an end to state-sanctioned executions.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Lisa Von Ahn)

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