No Way To Fight Crime

August 13, 1991

Eric Joseph Tirado will probably go to prison for life, without possibility of parole, for the murder of State Police Cpl. Ted Wolf. As well he should. But at what cost? In order to put him behind bars for good, taxpayers have spent scores of thousands of dollars for the prosecution effort by the Howard County state's attorney's office, plus scores of thousands of dollars more for Tirado's defense by the public defender's office.

And it is not over yet. Tirado gets a free (to him, not to you) appeal. This is not cheap. It costs lawyers' time, printing of transcripts, etc., not to mention the time the Court of Appeals will have to spend on the case -- time that could better be devoted to other matters in an overloaded judicial system. Tirado may even win his appeal. Howard Circuit Court Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. handled the trial with fairness and judicial competence, but even the best judges can make mistakes in trials like this one. If the verdict were overturned, the meter could start running all over again, and there might even have to be another trial.

What is wrong with all this is that it is so unnecessary. Tirado offered to plead guilty at the start if the state would not seek the death penalty. But as so often happens, in suburban counties especially, public blood lust pressured an elected prosecutor to refuse the deal and insist on a capital trial. So for weeks, the county's top criminal prosecutors and their staffs were not available to deal with other criminal business.

Some law enforcement authorities believe death penalty trials increase criminal activity. The attention paid to the spectacular crime contributes positively, and the fact that law enforcement resources are drained away from routine work contributes negatively. Maybe this is debatable. What is not debatable is that this state, like every other, is burdened by crime. Our criminal justice system is groaning. By any standard of measurement, seeking the death penalty when equally effective punishment and deterrent are available at a fraction of the cost is wasteful.

We do not minimize the public pressure on prosecutors in high-profile murder cases, but prosecutors in Baltimore City and, for that matter, in some Maryland counties have shown that the public understands and accepts the decision to maximize crime-fighting resources by minimizing death penalty prosecutions.

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