Public wrestles with the taking of life Despite outcry, juries back away from death penalty

December 20, 1992|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Staff Writer

When Pam Basu was dragged to her death by carjackers i September near Laurel, angry citizens poured into community meeting rooms by the hundreds, demanding the death penalty for her accused killers.

William R. Hymes, the veteran Howard County state's attorney who has long supported capital punishment, found the demands painfully ironic. Since the state's "new" capital punishment law went into effect on July 1, 1978, no Howard County jury has ever returned a death verdict.

Seven times Mr. Hymes has presented citizens of his county with death penalty murder cases, and seven times those juries returned first-degree murder convictions. But not even in the one case Mr. Hymes believed was open-and-shut -- that of Eric Tirado, convicted of murdering state trooper Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf -- did the jury return a death sentence.

"If ever a case cried out for the death penalty, that was it," says Mr. Hymes, who knew Corporal Wolf personally.

Indeed, the Tirado case, as well as any, points up a contradiction in public attitudes toward the death penalty. Recent high-profile crimes such as the Basu case, the murder of two bank tellers in Randallstown and the shootings of two Baltimore police officers have sparked enormous public fury -- including demands by Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Gov. William Donald Schaefer for a tougher death penalty law.

But the fact is, since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976 and Maryland passed a new death penalty '' law two years later, most judges or juries have rejected death in favor of life imprisonment.

"The figures will vary from year to year," says Thomas Saunders, who heads the Capital Defense Division for the state public defender's office. "It may be one out of four or two out of three that result in a death sentence. But the majority of cases will be life or life without parole."

While the state does not keep track of death sentences returned vs. those sought, various studies over the years show the disparity.

It's a reality not lost on Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor, known statewide as the prosecutor who "owns" death row, because nine of the 13 men under death sentence are from her jurisdiction. Despite that reputation, she says she understands the difficulty of the jurors' decision.

"We want to string them up," she says, "until someone is caught. Then you put a face and a name to the defendant, and they become a person.

"And I don't care how hard you slam your fist on the bar on Friday night, saying, 'We ought to give them the death penalty,' you see a 5-year-old get up on that stand and say, 'Please don't kill my daddy' -- that is tough."

Beyond emotion, there is the matter of the state's complicated capital punishment statute. Thirty of the 38 people sentenced to die since 1978 have succeeded on some level in the lengthy appeals process -- although some have merely been resentenced to death a second or third time. But in all, only one-third of those once condemned are still under a death sentence. "The Maryland death penalty is probably the most difficult for a prosecutor to handle of any law in the country," says Timothy Doory, a Baltimore assistant state's attorney. "It was written to be complex."

In fact, in 1987, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor disparaged the multi-page form that Maryland jurors use to weigh a long list of aggravating factors against another long list of mitigating factors in deciding a death penalty case.

"She incredulously said, 'You folks have all this stuff on a form? How does it all fit together?'" Mr. Doory remembers. "It was as if she believed ours was an incredibly complicated scheme, compared to Texas, Arizona, Georgia."

Even so, observers on both sides of the death penalty debate now predict that executions will most likely take place in Maryland in the next two to four years, as appeals begin to run out.

But because the law holds jurors to a higher standard of certainty than in other states -- such as Texas, which leads the nation with 52 executions since 1977 and the largest death row population at 363 -- many believe that there will never be more than two executions a year.

"There's an ambivalence to the death penalty," says Nancy Moran, a longtime volunteer in prisoner rights organizations who frequently testifies against the death penalty before legislative committees. "People get angry and rage and want them dead, but when it comes down to it, they can't flip the switch or drop the gas pellets. And that ambivalence plays itself out through the legal system."

It was rage'

Six months ago, the death penalty was far from Michael Chapman's mind. The 41-year-old operator of a gardening shop on Liberty Road, Mr. Chapman spent his time thinking about plants, advertising his latest bargains on a portable, roadside marquee.

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