Capital punishment is a 'bad joke'

Robert A. Erlandson

September 25, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson

CARL Daniel Kier awaited death on a winter night in 1959 clad only in clean white shorts.

Led unprotesting the few short steps from the death-watch cell at the Maryland State Penitentiary, Kier sat quietly, his lips moving silently, as four uniformed guards clicked the buckles into place and tightened the straps around his limbs and torso.

The guards backed out through the small door of the gas chamber. The last one spun the wheel to seal the chamber, leaving the 23-year-old convicted killer as alone as a human being can be.

Tension rose palpably among the witnesses gaping through the windows of the gas chamber. There was no last-minute telephone call from Annapolis.

The warden gave the signal.

There was a plop as the bag of crystals was lowered into the pan of acid beneath the perforated metal chair. Fumes swirled upward, then nothing, at least nothing visible. But the chamber was filling quickly with deadly cyanide gas.

Kier flinched at the sound but did not struggle. He remained impassive. His chest heaved once, then again. His head bowed and he slumped against the restraining straps. One minute and 42 seconds later, a physician listening to the stethoscope monitor attached to Kier's chest nodded, 'He's dead." Slight heart action was registered for several minutes more.

The guards hustled the group out of the death chamber, back across the yard through the cold winter dark and through several clanging, barred doors to the main entrance. We dispersed,each of us to huddle with his own thoughts. Another execution had been carried out. There has been but one since, in 1963.

In 1959, before the era of media hype, there were no sign-waving demonstrators outside the prison, and the witnesses held no press conferences to describe the execution as barbaric and horrific. It wasn't; it was fast and clinical. There was no passion.

Carl Daniel Kier died quickly and quietly. He committed one of the most vicious crimes of that period, and he paid the ultimate price.

Kier's victim died neither quickly nor quietly. He chased Mrs. John H. Bopst Jr., 47, around her Charles Street Avenue home stabbing, slashing and beating her before he finally pinned her legs to the floor with two war-souvenir bayonets and raped her.

The murder occurred June 12, 1956. Kier was arrested the next day, after a neighbor recalled a man going through the neighborhood looking for casual work. He had given the neighbor his name and address; she notified authorities.

Kier, who was on parole at the time, was convicted twice, the first time in September 1956, when he was sentenced to die that December. The Court of Appeals overturned the first verdict but upheld the second conviction, by a two-judge court in Frederick in October 1957.

Kier received several reprieves as Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin reviewed the case. The final review, however, fell to newly inaugurated Gov. J. Millard Tawes. He denied clemency, and Kier was executed the next day, Jan. 23, 1956 -- 2 1/2 years after the murder.

Maryland prosecutors still call for the death penalty and juries still impose it. But it's become a bad joke. The appellate system permits endless delays, and verdicts are overturned on technicalities. A Death Row inmate has a far better chance of dying of old age than by execution.

And if by some chance a case should work its way through the appellate system -- a process taking years and providing infinite opportunities for lawyerly mischief -- there remains the hurdle of the governor signing the death warrant. So dense is the legal thicket that by the time an execution date is set, it may be 10 years since the crime. Under these conditions, execution is no longer punishment; it is revenge -- revenge without deterrent value.

BTC Passions in Baltimore have been aroused by last weekend's shootings of two policemen, one fatally. Both officers were shot with their own guns -- the man who killed Officer Ira Weiner was in turn killed by police -- and neither shooting appears to have been premeditated, but to have occurred in a struggle.

In the wake of these shootings, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the Fraternal Order of Police have urged reactivation of capital punishment. Gov. William Donald Schaefer has joined the get-tough crowd by announcing a review of 10 capital cases, with a view to expediting them.

Under current conditions, however, it is probable that another governor will be in the State House by the time a single one of those cases reaches the death-warrant stage.

The major concern of many who oppose capital punishment is the possibility, however slight, of executing an innocent person. And Governor Schaefer has estimated that a death-sentence appeal can cost $1.5 million.

There is a way to alleviate the moral concern and save money, too.

If the General Assembly could muster the political courage to ignore the "eye-for-an-eye" emotion and replace the death penalty with a life-without-parole sentence that means what it says, the legislators would really be making the punishment fit the crime.

Only the walking brain-dead could believe that the prospect of decades behind bars is preferable to a date with the gas chamber.

Carl Daniel Kier's problems ended in one minute and 42 seconds that night in 1959. Suppose he had spent the last 33 years in prison? He would be 56 now, with perhaps another 20 or 30 years to anticipate behind bars. Some prospect!

Robert A. Erlandson is a reporter for The Evening Sun and The Sun.

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