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O'Malley May Commute 4 Death Row Sentences Before Hogan Takes Office

BALTIMORE (AP) -- With only two months left before Republican Larry Hogan takes office, Gov. Martin O'Malley might take action to commute the sentences of four men who remain on Maryland's death row.

They are still under death sentences, even though O'Malley signed a bill repealing the state's death penalty last May.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said Friday that O'Malley's office contacted him and asked to speak with relatives of two people whose killers were sentenced to death in Baltimore County.

Shellenberger says the move likely indicates that the governor is "looking at his commutation powers."

O'Malley's office declined to comment.

Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler filed a brief with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals on Nov. 11 to support attorneys for Jody Lee Miles, who contend his death sentence is illegal because Maryland no longer has a death penalty statute. Gansler's brief asks the court to sentence Miles to life without parole or direct a circuit court judge to do so. Gansler said oral arguments are scheduled before the intermediate appellate court on Dec. 8.

The death penalty repeal enacted last year applied only to future death sentences, leaving five men on death row. One of those men, John Booth-El, died in April.

Gansler's brief applies specifically to Miles, who was sentenced to death in 1998 after he was convicted of killing Edward Joseph Atkinson while collecting a debt on behalf of a loan shark. But Gansler said his move would leave the door "wide open" for attorneys for the other three men to seek an illegal sentence ruling.

"It would be ineffective assistance of counsel for the lawyers for those three defendants not to file a due process claim to get them off death row in the wake of this," Gansler said.

Shellenberger said O'Malley's office reached out to him about a week and a half ago seeking relatives of David Scott Piechowicz and his sister-in-law Susan Kennedy, who were murdered in 1983 while waiting to testify in a federal narcotics case.  Anthony Grandison was convicted of ordering the contract killings and was sentenced to death, along with Vernon Evans, Grandison's triggerman. Shellenberger said Piechowicz and Kennedy have no close relatives left.

A supporter of the death penalty, Shellenberger said he believes the sentences for Grandison and Evans should stand. Shellenberger said it is important to uphold the sentences in case future governors choose to reinstate capital punishment.

"We don't know what a governor is going to do 10 years from now, 20 years from now. A future governor may well look differently on a death sentence than a life sentence," he said.

Mary Francis Moore said she wants the death sentence upheld for the man who killed her father and step-mother in 1995 with a pair of scissors. Moore asks why it has taken so long for Heath Burch, who was convicted and sentenced in 1996, to be put to death.

"You go through a trial and you have a jury decide he was guilty. Then a judge sentences him, and I can't get in my brain why we go through this if someone can undo it," Moore said. "Appeals, he went through seven of those. He went through everything he could possible go through. Why did it take so long?"

Moore said her father, Robert F. Davis, was a World War II veteran who became a firefighter. Moore said Davis once took pity on Burch, who lived next door, and let him go after catching him with a gun trying to break into his car.

Moore said she is scheduled to speak with O'Malley on Monday afternoon by phone.

Hogan told The Associated Press in an interview in late October that he has no plans to try and reinstate the death penalty once he takes office.

"I have no intention of trying to roll back or repeal the change in the death penalty law," Hogan said. "It's, in my opinion, settled law in Maryland."

(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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