By Lacey Johnson
(Reuters) - The Maryland House of Delegates voted on Friday to overturn the state's death penalty, putting it a step closer to becoming the 18th state to abolish executions.
By a vote of 82 to 56, the House agreed to replace capital punishment with a sentence of life without parole. It approved the measure a week after the Senate passed the bill.
Governor Martin O'Malley, who has pledged to sign the bill into law, will decide the fate of the five men currently on Maryland's death row.
"Today the Maryland General Assembly voted to remove Maryland from the ranks of other places in this world - Iraq, Iran, Syria, and others - who do still have public executions," O'Malley said.
The majorities in both houses, as well as the governor, are Democrats.
Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown praised lawmakers for their deliberate yet passionate debate before voting to repeal capital punishment.
"It was principled and reasoned," said Brown. "Today is a great day for Maryland... we're going to be strong on justice, while also protecting innocents."
The bill was O'Malley's second attempt to overturn capital punishment since 2009. When he introduced the legislation in January, he said the death penalty was expensive and did not work.
"Year after year, states which have a death penalty have actually had a higher murder rate than states which do not have a death penalty," he said.
The governor also pointed to a 2008 study conducted by the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment that found the state's death penalty sentencing to be racially biased. Of the five men currently serving time on Maryland's death row, four are African-Americans whose victims were white.
But some Maryland legislators insist the death penalty is necessary to bring justice to victims and their families.
"I think it's a dreadful mistake. I fully believe we need to keep it on the books as a deterrent," Republican Delegate Gail Bates said after she voted against the repeal.
Bates said she also feared for the safety of correctional officers, who are at risk of being attacked by lifelong criminals with little to lose.
Delegate Kathy Afzali, another Republican who also voted against the repeal, said before the balloting: "I am someone who believes that there are some crimes that are so heinous and so horrible that they do deserve the death penalty."
Her attempt to amend the bill to allow the death penalty in extreme cases, such as mass killings and school shootings, was voted down on Wednesday.
Since Maryland reinstated the death penalty in 1978, 58 people have been sentenced to death, while only five sentences have been carried out, according to Jane Henderson, executive director of the nonprofit Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. Henderson said the vast majority of sentences were changed to life without parole.
Maryland's last execution took place in 2005.
Five states - Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, and New Jersey - have repealed the death penalty since 2007, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A total of 17 U.S. states have put an end to state-sanctioned executions.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Lisa Von Ahn, Dale Hudson and Dan Grebler)