Maryland's chief judge is calling for a commission to study whether the state's death-penalty law is worth the cost involved, an expense generated in large part by appeals from those sentenced to die.
In his annual state of the judiciary address to lawmakers yesterday, Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, suggested that the General Assembly assess "the worth and effectiveness of your 1978 capital-punishment statute."
He noted the "extraordinarily high costs" of prosecutors, public defenders, court time and constitutional challenges associated with capital punishment in Maryland.
Efforts expended on these cases "might be more productively devoted to the trial of violent, non-capital felony offenses," Murphy said.
Murphy is not considered a philosophical opponent of the death penalty, though he has spoken out before about the high costs of implementing the punishment.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said he would oppose efforts to scrap the death penalty, but would support efforts to streamline it by speeding up the cumbersome process of appeals. Miller, D-Prince George's, said legislation could be introduced this year to do that.
"I believe capital punishment can be made to work and should be made to work," said Miller. He said he has discussed legislation to that effect with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Eastern Shore.
Del. John S. Arnick, D-Balto. Co., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he was surprised to hear Murphy's recommendation but he predicted lawmakers on both sides of the issue will file bills.
"My first-blush opinion is that there may be some moves to either streamline the thing or to take Judge Murphy's approach to get rid of the whole thing," Arnick said.
Capital punishment has had a rocky history in Maryland in recent times. Elements of the state's death-penalty statute have been thrown out by U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1972, 1976, 1987 and 1988.
Meanwhile, 35 people have been sentenced to die Maryland since the state passed a revised death-penalty law in 1978. Thirteen are awaiting execution; another six have had their sentences overturned but still could have them reinstated, said Richard Rosenblatt, who coordinates capital litigation for the Maryland attorney general's office.
He said most of the complaints by prosecutors center around two issues: the lack of time limits for appeals by defendants, and the lack of restrictions on what issues can be brought up in a death-penalty appeal.
Also in his speech yesterday, Murphy repeated a suggestion that the state take over funding of the circuit court system, which is now paid for by the 23 counties and Baltimore city.
Several legislative leaders said a bill mandating a state takeover of Circuit Court functions would fare poorly in the legislature, especially when the state is wrestling with a revenue shortfall.
"The state doesn't have the resources," Miller said. Furthermore, he said, local jurisdictions should retain control of their court systems.
But Murphy said that justice is a state, not local, function that should be consolidated and funded by the state. This could be accomplished gradually to ease the cost, he said.
Funding for courts is an especially acute problem in Baltimore, he said, where there is a backlog of more than 2,000 untried felony defendants. Half of the state's convicts committed their crimes and were tried in the city, he said.