A statewide petition effort to overturn a bill ending the death penalty in Maryland has fallen thousands of short of an initial legal hurdle.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said Friday afternoon that the referendum effort collected about 15,000 signatures—well short of the initial 18,500 signatures needed by midnight Friday.
Shellenberger said the group believed they would need at least 23,000 signatures by the deadline to overcome the 25 percent margin of signatures typically rejected by the Maryland State Board of Elections.
"We just knew the difference between the 23,000 and where we were meant we weren't going to be able to make the first deadline," Shellenberger.
The failure of the referendum effort means the bill signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Martin O'Malley will not be overturned at the ballot box.
Shellenberger, a Democrat and outspoken supporter of the death penalty, joined with Washington County Republican Del. Neil Parrott and Baltimore County Democratic State Sen. Jim Brochin in an effort to collect the more than 55,700 signatures needed to force the issue on to the 2014 ballot.
The group hoped to use Parrott's website, MDPetitions.com, to push their effort over the top. The website was responsible for forcing the legalization of same-sex marriage and the so-called Maryland DREAM Act to the 2012 ballot.
Shellenberger said a number of factors combined to doom their effort.
"There was just no natural constituency of people who supported the death penalty," Shellenberger said. "You just didn't have a group or an email list that you could go to and push a button and feel like you were in the right place."
Those comments echoed a similar statement made by Brochin two weeks ago. In an interview with WBAL radio, Brochin said he gave the effort to put the bill on the ballot "a 50-50 chance" because of a lack of a grassroots support group.
Shellenberger said he personally collected over 1,000 signatures including 750 over two days at the Towson Spring Festival.
"I collected those over maybe 16 hours over two days," Shellenberger said. "That really brought home how hard this was going to be."
Adding to the challenge was what Shellenberger said was public apathy over the death penalty in the state because it has been used so rarely and the fact that the Maryland DREAM Act and same-sex marriage were approved even though the petition drive collected the needed signatures relatively quickly.
The prosecutor said he is still a supporter of capital punishment but is resigned to the fact that it is no longer an available tool. He said the public might come to regret not having the death penalty on the books.
"One day something very bad is going to happen in Maryland and we're all going to wake up and look at each other and realize we don't even have an appropriate penalty to deal with it," Shellenberger said.
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