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Uphill battle for Maryland death penalty repeal petition drive

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Local,Maryland,Andy Brownfield

The group trying to reinstate the death penalty in Maryland admits its facing an uphill battle in trying to overturn the state legislature's decision to abolish capital punishment.

MDPetitions.com successfully pushed three issues to ballot referendums during the 2012 election -- same-sex marriage, redrawn legislative districts and a measure that would allow some illegal immigrants to pay lower in-state tuition at state colleges -- but then lost all three in the vote.

Now, the group is focusing all of its energy on one issue, overturning the General Assembly's decision to abolish the death penalty, and it's applying lessons learned from past failures.

"It's important, and I think we learned a lesson from the last election, that you can't take your foot off the gas once you've got the petitions," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat.

The group expects to get the death penalty issue on the ballot so that voters themselves can decide the fate of capital punishment in the state. But members acknowledge that they face a daunting task in trying to overcome a large, well-funded anti-death penalty movement, the same groups that convinced the legislatures to abolish it in the first place -- including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the NAACP and Amnesty International.

"We are disappointed that the great achievement toward justice we achieved in recent weeks has been challenged, but we are prepared to defeat it," NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous, a supporter of the repeal, said in a statement.

Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, a coalition of labor, religious and civil rights groups, said she doesn't see any widespread opposition to the repeal. She pointed out that there was no large group to fund the effort, like the NRA would do for a gun control referendum.

"I don't see who in the long term is going to come in and put energy into this," she said.

Shellenberger acknowledges that and said it was going to take a lot of ordinary Marylanders to get out the word.

"This is a grassroots effort," he said. "I certainly think our correctional officers unions, and I think our FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] ... I think they will be the ones who are charged with making sure people know the issues."

Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, said lawmakers themselves will be holding town hall or constituent meetings that could help spread the word about the ballot question.

Marylanders are divided over the death penalty. A poll done in January found that 48 percent of state residents would want to keep the death penalty in place while 42 percent favor abolishing it.

abrownfield@washingtonexaminer.com

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