How Many Appeals Are Too Many?

COMMENT

January 10, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

Four people sit around a table, stacks of signature-crammed petitions piled in front of them, talking about justice and rage and all the reasons why killers must be killed.

You know why two of them are there. Ted Criswell and Ginni Wolf, they have a personal stake in this. His wife was slain a mile from her Crofton home in 1990. Her husband was State Police Cpl. Theodore Wolf, shot to death on a routine traffic stop in Howard County.

They talk about an eye for an eye, and, even if you yourself recoil at the concept of capital punishment, you understand. You imagine yourself in their position and know it's impossible to say you wouldn't want the same kind of revenge. If anyone has a reason to lead a crusade for swifter, more frequent use of the death penalty in Maryland, it is them.

But Ted Criswell and Ginni Wolf did not start the petition drive that has made headlines across the state. The other two did -- two ordinary women whose lives have never been touched by crime.

Liz Forbes is a 56-year-old unemployed grandmother from Upper Marlboro. Valerie Grail is 28, a single mother from Glen Burnie employed as a secretary at the same Odenton construction company where Mrs. Forbes used to work.

They've never been involved in community affairs, and clearly are novices when it comes to politics and "the system," as they call it. "In fact," Ms. Grail says, "I've never even voted."

Yet here they are, activists, being interviewed by newspapers and seeking audiences with powerful politicians. No doubt their petition drive had something to do with Gov. William Donald Schaefer's announcement last week of a new study on ways to speed the appeals process in death penalty cases.

Mrs. Forbes and Ms. Grail are hoping the governor will honor their request for a meeting Jan. 26 to discuss their petitions. In any event, they've secured a permit for a rally in front of the State House Jan. 25.

This activism business is a new world, unlike anything they expected when, the day after two Baltimore City police officers were shot last fall, they decided to start a petition.

They didn't know what they were doing. "I was blind as a bat," Ms. Grail says. "I was going to get 2,600 signatures from somewhere -- I didn't know where."

Instead, they have 26,000. It isn't hard to find people who believe there's no justice, they found. And Mrs. Wolf and Mr. Criswell, for obvious reasons, have proven persuasive allies.

Were their arguments based purely on emotion and vengefulness (what Mrs. Forbes and Ms. Grail were feeling when they started their petition), they would carry little weight. But they do have valid complaints about an appeals process that takes a minimum of eight years and prevents victims from being able to close a terrible chapter in their lives.

There are three separate levels of appeals for death penalty inmates, but this is not the problem, says Sue Schenning, a Baltimore County deputy state's attorney who has tried six death penalty cases. It's the lack of deadlines for recording trial transcripts, filing petitions, scheduling hearings and issuing decisions that drags out the process.

If these problems were legislatively corrected, she said, most death penalty cases -- those where the conviction is upheld every step of the way -- could be completed in three years without denying due process or taking away the safeguards that prevent the innocent from being executed.

Mr. Criswell, Mrs. Wolf, Mrs Forbes and Ms. Grail support such reforms. But they would not shed any tears if legislators were willing to make more radical changes, reducing the number of avenues open to defendants.

Mrs. Wolf thinks one trip to the state Court of Appeals is enough. Mild-mannered as she is, she sees red when she thinks of convicted killers who have won new trials two or three times. "How many trials do you need?" she asks.

The answer, of course, is as many as it takes to do it right.

It may seem a travesty when those convicted of heinous crimes on a preponderance of evidence win new trials because of, say, a prejudiced juror. But the system does not have a separate set of rules for the worst offenders. They, too, are guaranteed a proper trial. Otherwise, their convictions are meaningless.

Maryland is, perhaps, too generous with death penalty inmates. For example, the state gives inmates the right to ask for two post-conviction hearings when the Supreme Court requires only one. But the principle behind an extensive appeals process is sound. Take it away, and the risk that an innocent person will pay the ultimate price multiplies.

Mrs. Forbes says that risk is so small we should take it.

But we must never be willing to do that, even if it means no one is ever executed again. The system is imperfect now. But once we are willing to sacrifice innocents in the quest for justice there is no more justice and no more system -- only organized revenge.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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