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Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. says that he expects voters, not lawmakers, to have the final say on whether the state’s death penalty is repealed, but observers say success or failure at the ballot box will depend heavily on how the question is worded.

When asked if they support the death penalty, people tend to give one answer, but when they’re asked if they would support replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole, they often give another, said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.

“If people understand that you’re leaving life without the possibility of parole [as the alternative], I think we’ll win,” Henderson said. “We’re not talking about letting murderers out of prison.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said last week that he believes a death penalty repeal was within reach of gaining the 24 votes needed to pass the Senate, and Miller (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach, who supports capital punishment, said last week that he expects the measure will succeed and be petitioned to the 2014 ballot.

“I'm confident that it will [go before the voters],” Miller said. “It’s a matter of great concern to many.”

Maryland polling data on the issue is a few years old, Henderson said.

A 2009 Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies poll found that 53 percent of Marylanders favored the death penalty, with 41 percent opposed. But when asked if life without parole is an acceptable substitute for execution, 65 percent said “yes,” and 31 percent said “no.”

While many people might support the death penalty in theory, they will oppose it when confronted with its practical drawbacks –– such as people who have been released from death row after being exonerated by DNA evidence, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

The idea that murderers will still face life without parole makes a real difference in how people perceive the issue, Dieter said.

A 2008 study conducted by Dieter’s organization determined that the 162 capital cases prosecuted in the state between 1978 and 1999 cost taxpayers $186 million and resulted in five executions. Capital cases usually have longer trials and a lengthy appellate process, according to the study.

And while a recent effort to overturn California’s death penalty failed at the polls, it was petitioned to the ballot without legislative action, Dieter said.

“It would be different in Maryland in that it [would be] something that’s passed the legislature and been signed by the governor,” Dieter said. “You're kind of affirming something that’s already been enacted.”

O’Malley goes into the 2013 legislative session coming off a string of victories in the 2012 election, including the ballot measures upholding same-sex marriage and the Maryland Dream Act.  While the governor has not yet said whether the death penalty repeal will be part of his legislative package this year, he pushed for it in 2009.

The 2009 effort ended in a compromise that restricted use of the death penalty to cases in which there was DNA evidence, conclusive video evidence or a videotaped confession.

A 2012 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 46 percent of Americans prefer the death penalty for murderers, while 47 percent favor life without parole.

But some Maryland lawmakers are standing firmly behind the death penalty. Baltimore County Del. Patrick L. McDonough (D-Dist. 7) of Middle River announced last week that he will introduce five bills mandating the use of the death penalty in certain cases, including for mass murder.

“The recent mass murder of children in Newtown [Conn.] makes it clear that a capital punishment remedy is necessary,” McDonough said in a statement Thursday. “I find it hard to believe that the governor, or any member of the General Assembly, would support the idea of an assassin of innocent children to be granted life without parole.”

Five inmates currently are on death row in Maryland. No execution has taken place since 2006 due to issues in the protocol for lethal injection as well as the unavailability of a drug used in the procedure.

dleaderman@gazette.net