Gov. Martin O'Malley is scheduled to sign a bill repealing Maryland's death penalty this week, which would make the state the 18th to do away with its ultimate punishment, though opponents have already filed paperwork to allow voters to overturn the measure.
O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the governor, who championed the repeal, will sign the bill on Thursday.
The bill would eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The fates of the five men currently on death row would be in O'Malley's hands. The governor has said he would make those decisions on a case-by-case basis.
While capital punishment would be banned on the
bill's Oct. 1 effective date, voters may have the chance to overturn the repeal on the November 2014 ballot.
MDPetitions.com, headed by Washington County Republican Del. Neil Parrott, has submitted paperwork to the state Board of Elections to begin the process of collecting petitions to put the repeal's fate before voters.
Parrott said the referendum is on the table, but his group hasn't made a decision whether to pursue it yet.
"This is really bad timing for Maryland to even be talking about removing the death penalty," Parrott said. "When you look at [the mass shooting of 26 people] in Newtown, Conn., our governor's stance was to take away guns while telling people who perpetrate these acts that we're not going to use all of the tools available to us."
The deadline to file the first 18,579 -- or one-third -- of the required 55,736 signatures is May 31. Parrott admitted it would be an uphill battle to meet that deadline.
"We are in serious decision mode right now."
Proponents of repealing Maryland's death penalty aren't particularly worried about a referendum effort, despite a January poll from Annapolis-based OpinionWorks showing 48 percent of Marylanders opposing repeal.
"The reality is, there's not organized opposition on this issue," said Jane Henderson, executive director of the anti-death penalty coalition Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. "We're not like [gay] marriage or guns or such where there's a national force that's trying to keep the death penalty."
Henderson said individuals oppose repealing the death penalty but well-funded national groups that help campaign for or against such referendum issues -- as the American Civil Liberties Union did during the referendum of same-sex marriage in 2012 -- aren't getting involved.
"I don't see a whole lot of fire on this," Henderson said. "I suspect if someone really wanted to petition it to the ballot they could, but obviously, the objective is to win this, not just petition it to the ballot."