"The law is a jealous master."
That's what Judge David B. Mitchell said nearly two years ago as he sentenced Shawn M. Woodson to death for killing a Baltimore police officer. Had the judge been able to look into the future, he might also have said the law is a fickle master.
On Jan. 24, the Court of Appeals vacated Woodson's murder conviction and death sentence, citing the use of a jail inmate's testimony. The decision puts the case back in Baltimore. Woodson's friends and family, as well as those of Officer William J. Martin, will sit through another trial and, if there is another first-degree murder conviction, another sentencing hearing, each side reliving the terrible events of Oct. 10, 1989.
It is not the first time such a thing has happened in Maryland, where no one has been executed in nearly 31 years.
Take the case of John F. Thanos, who was convicted earlier this week in Garrett County of murdering two Baltimore County youths. Already a legal problem has occurred in his case, causing the judge to declare a mistrial Thursday in the sentencing phase. Thanos' conviction stands, but another jury will have to consider whether he should be executed.
If one believes Thanos' videotaped confession, his guilt is obvious. That leaves the problem of what to do with this madman who at one point asks to be killed, then talks about Jesus. Sentencing him to die would be easy, though hard to bring about, as history proves.
Even if a death sentence is handed down, executing a man is difficult. Each case is painstakingly reviewed, each issue vigorously argued. The path to execution is a legal labyrinth of at least 24 separate steps -- at any one of which death sentences can be overturned. And there is always the governor, who can commute a death sentence.
During the years since Maryland enacted the death penalty in 1978, the state's appellate judges have searched for a perfect case. Instead, they have found flaws. The law constantly evolves with each decision.
Yet those events are mere skirmishes in the larger battle, the war of values that is being fought in the courts: An eye for an eye vs. thou shalt not kill.
Presently, seven people are on death row in Maryland, down from 20 four years ago. Who is to say some trial or sentencing error won't be found that will send those cases back to the court of origin? If not in the state courts, then perhaps in the federal system, where Maryland's cases have not yet explored an entire arena of post-conviction appeals.
One might think there is a problem with Maryland's death penalty statute, that it is stricter than the laws in other states. Not so says Katy O'Donnell of the public defender's capital defense division.
"I don't think you can attribute it to the statute being so difficult. You can't say that at all," she said. "It's not because the statute is written so that death cannot be imposed. Any case, death or otherwise has any number of issues."
In Anne Arundel County, Steven Gregory Anderson pleaded guilty to the murder of Gwyn Dixon Criswell, a 41-year-old mother of two, and was given life without parole. Initially, state prosecutors wanted to seek the death penalty for Anderson, even though his lawyers said he probably would die from an AIDS-related disease before he could be executed.
In Howard County, a jury decided against a death sentence for Eric Tirado and gave him life without parole for killing Maryland State Police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf. The decision outraged many. His murder, like that of Officer Martin, was a strike at society's defense against anarchy. Still, the jury decided against death.
Only later was it learned that Tirado had wanted to plead guilty in exchange for life without parole. The plea was rejected by the state, which wanted a death sentence. Thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours were spent. The one saving grace is the sense of finality brought by Tirado's sentence.
Some have pointed to the expense of Tirado's case as a reason to re-examine our pursuit of capital punishment. Last year, Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy urged a review to see if the court system's resources could be better spent. But the issue is about more than dollars and cents.
The death penalty demands that we decide where we stand.
Can we continue to wave the Bible in one hand and cyanide tablets in the other? Some states have tried to sanitize executions by using lethal injections, preferring that "humane" means to the unreliable jolts of a cantankerous Old Sparky, or the choking cloud of the gas chamber. But why concern ourselves with humane executions? After all, death is death.
More important is the damage done to the criminal justice system. Each reversal lessens faith in the system. A no-parole life sentence in the Maryland Penitentiary is seen as a lucky break. Survivors become disgusted and frustrated with a system that appears unable to keep its promise, or provide them with a just sense of retribution. The families of the dead and of the convicted, inextricably linked by violence, are pulled between life and death as if they were on a yo-yo string.
All this is not to dismiss or in any way lessen the crimes committed. It is only to call into question the path capital punishment puts us on. Vengeance or compassion; an eye for an eye, or thou shalt not kill.
What can be said is this: A sentence never imposed becomes no sentence at all.