ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers approved a measure abolishing the death penalty on Friday, and the bill is expected to be signed by the Democratic governor who has long pushed for banning capital punishment in the state.
If the measure is signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, it will make Maryland the 18th state in the nation to do away with the death penalty.
A repeal bill won final passage from the House of Delegates on Friday. It already had been approved by the Senate.
The House advanced the legislation this week after delegates rejected nearly 20 amendments, mostly from Republicans, aimed at keeping capital punishment for the most heinous crimes.
If passed, life without the possibility of parole would be the most severe sentence in the state.
Supporters of repeal argue that the death penalty is costly, error-prone, racially biased and a poor deterrent of crime. But opponents say it is a necessary tool to punish lawbreakers who commit the most egregious crimes.
Maryland has five men on death row. The measure would not apply to them retroactively, but the legislation makes clear that the governor can commute their sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The state's last execution took place in 2005, during the administration of Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich. He resumed executions after a moratorium had been in place pending a 2003 University of Maryland study, which found significant racial and geographic disparity in how the death penalty was carried out.
Capital punishment was put on hold in Maryland after a December 2006 ruling by Maryland's highest court that the state's lethal injection protocols weren't properly approved by a legislative committee. The committee, whose co-chairs oppose capital punishment, has yet to sign off on protocols.
O'Malley, a Catholic, expressed support for repeal legislation in 2007, but it stalled in a Senate committee.
Maryland has a large Catholic population, and the church opposes the death penalty.
In 2008, lawmakers created a commission to study capital punishment after repeal efforts failed again. The panel recommended a ban later that year, citing racial and jurisdictional disparities in how the death penalty is applied.
In 2009, lawmakers tightened the law to reduce the chances of an innocent person being sent to death row by restricting capital punishment to murder cases with biological evidence such as DNA, videotaped evidence of a murder or a videotaped confession.
According to the Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services website, Maryland has executed only five inmates since 1976. There were three in the 1990s, and two when Ehrlich was governor.
In contrast, neighboring Virginia has executed 110 inmates since the U.S. Supreme Court restored capital punishment in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. However, Virginia's death row population has dwindled to eight from a peak of 57 in 1995, in part because fewer death sentences are being handed down in the state amid an increased acceptance of life without parole as a reasonable alternative.
The center said death sentences have declined by 75 percent and executions by 60 percent nationally since the 1990s.
Connecticut abolished the death penalty last year. Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York also have outlawed it in recent years.