Put death penalty to use, angry Schmoke tells Md. bTC

September 20, 1992|By Darren M. Allen and James M. Coram | Darren M. Allen and James M. Coram,Staff Writers

Clearly angry and frustrated after two police shootings in a many days, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday it was time for Maryland to begin using the death penalty, a punishment not seen here in 31 years.

"The death penalty in this state has just got to happen," Mayor Schmoke said outside of the Maryland Shock Trauma Center after checking on the condition of Officer Ira Weiner, who was critically injured earlier in the morning. "Our police are fighting a battle with one hand tied behind their backs. Criminals are shooting first and asking questions later."

In addition to calling for use of the death penalty in cases of murder, the mayor said he was going to ask the City Council to approve an increase in the city's piggyback income tax rate.

"We've got to move ahead to increase revenue," the mayor said. "We are going to try to increase the police forces by creating a public safety fund. The source of those funds will be an increase in our piggyback tax, and some of that increase will be dedicated to law enforcement efforts."

Maryland's death penalty was reinstated in 1978. As many as 29 people have been on the state's death row since then, but none has been executed. Ten prisoners currently face possible execution.

The state's gas chamber -- a steel, hexagonal vault in the Maryland Penitentiary -- hasn't been used since convicted rapist and murderer Nathaniel Lipscomb was killed in 1961.

The mayor wasn't the only one calling for a change in Maryland's death penalty yesterday. A City Council member and a member of the state attorney general's office also said it was time to make the penalty a reality.

"I am 100 percent behind the mayor and his stance on the death penalty," said Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd. "It's one of the only measures we have to stop this."

"To have a death penalty theoretically but not having one that is ever used in reality is the worst of all possible worlds," said Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions and advice in the attorney general's office. "Our system is supposed to be designed to make sure death sentences are given out without mistakes. But all people perceive are endless procedural hurdles before the sentence can be imposed."

State Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Schwartz said the current death penalty process could be changed to "could cut down the steps it takes to weed out cases in which death has been imposed improperly."

People given the death sentence go through 24 rounds of appeals, officials said.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer also has said he supports the death penalty for people convicted of killing police officers.

For Mayor Schmoke, once the city's top prosecutor, the shootings of Officers Weiner and James E. Young Jr. are more evidence that the city is erupting in seemingly uncontrollable violence.

"We're going to get the message to criminals, who don't seem to care," he said. "We are not going to let the criminal element take over this city. There is an element in the community now that needs to understand that if you take a life, you'll lose your life."

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said that while the council was not inclined to support a raise in the piggyback tax, public safety was the city's most pressing problem.

"The mayor and I agree that the citizens of Baltimore cannot afford a higher piggyback tax, but we cannot afford more crime. But if a piggyback tax is the last resort to get more money for police, then that's what we'll have to do," she said.

The mayor proposed raising the tax rate to 55 percent of the state's income tax level, a measure that could generate an additional $13 million for the city.

The city already has plans to hire more than 130 new officers, Ms. Clarke said, but that would leave the department far short of its allowable 2,900-officer strength.

According to Ms. Clarke, there are about 2,500 officers in the department. The city had 3,200 officers on the streets during the 1980s.

Another council member who opposes tax increases said he might make an exception if it were the only way to get more money to the Police Department.

"After studying what will be done with the money, I may be supportive of such a move," said Mr. Cunningham. "But that's how desperate we are. We've just about run out of ways, but all of this crime is a kind of suicide. I'm afraid raising taxes is another kind of suicide."

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