Since 1978, 57 death sentences But last execution in Maryland was in 1961

December 20, 1992|By Patrick A. McGuire

Maryland's current death penalty law was enacted in 1978. The old law, which allowed the death penalty for rapists as well as murderers and saw 52 executions from 1923 to 1961, was rendered useless by a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the death sentence nationwide.

That effectively freed hundreds of condemned prisoners from death rows and came after years of debate that began in the mid-1960s. Anti-death penalty advocates argued that criteria for death sentences varied so widely as to make the punishment arbitrary and a violation of the constitutional right to due process.

The high court told states to draft more equitable laws and in 1976 began upholding several of those newly passed statutes. Thirty-six states have adopted capital punishment legislation. In 1977, Utah executed Gary Gilmore and became the first of 20 states since 1966 to put someone to death.

A condemned killer has access to the same three-tiered level of appeals available to any person convicted of a crime. At the end of each level, the defendant may also petition the Supreme Court for relief.

In recent years, the Supreme Court has shown increased tendencies to limit those appeals. There is even a movement among some death penalty advocates in Congress to narrow or do away with the federal level of appeals.

Since 1978, Maryland judges or juries have handed down 57 death sentences to 38 different people -- 36 men and two women. That's an average of four a year compared with the national average of seven a year.

No one has been executed in Maryland since 1961, when Nathaniel Lipscomb died in the gas chamber. In those days, the average time between sentencing and execution was 220 days, compared with the eight-year minimum today.

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