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Gov. Martin O'Malley gave Maryland's last 4 death row inmates life sentences

Gov. Martin O'Malley helped end the death penalty in Maryland.
Gov. Martin O'Malley helped end the death penalty in Maryland.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News
  1. Outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley will commute the sentences of the state's final four death row inmates to life in prison, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.
  2. Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013, but the change left in place any existing death row sentences.
  3. O'Malley's actions support Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler's assertion that it would be illegal to carry out the death sentences without a state law allowing it.
  4. O'Malley is widely considered a potential contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. His opposition to the death penalty could raise the issue in the Democratic primaries.

US executions hit a 40-year low in 2014

A report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), an anti-capital punishment organization, found that 35 people were executed in 2014, down from a peak of 98 in 1999. Three states were responsible for 80 percent of the executions in the US in 2014: Texas (10), Missouri (10), and Florida (8).

The American Civil Liberties Union charted the rapid decline in executions:

The number of people sentenced to death also dropped to a modern low since 1974. DPIC expects 72 people will be sentenced to death in 2014, down from a peak of 315 in 1994 and 1996.

Some of the drop is due to states no longer carrying out executions. Eighteen states have banned the death penalty, with Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York doing so since 2007. Governors in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington unilaterally put all executions on hold while they're in office. In California, a federal judge declared the state's death penalty unconstitutional because it takes too long to execute people and it's applied arbitrarily.

Many states have also run out of drug supplies for lethal injections. After the European Union banned exports of drugs often used for executions, states resorted to experimental, sometimes secret cocktails of drugs to execute inmates. But the drugs drew criticism after botched executions this year in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Arizona, prompting some states to delay executions as they review their practices.

Read more: Ohio's legislature just voted to make its executions more secretive.