Panel hears testimony on bill calling for execution by injection STATE HOUSE REPORT

February 03, 1993|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

Maryland should change its method of execution from gas to injection to avoid costly and time-consuming lawsuits from death-penalty opponents, a state Senate committee was told yesterday.

Corrections Commissioner Richard A. Lanham Sr. said other states that use gas chambers have been sued on grounds that such executions constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Mr. Lanham said he expects similar legal action here if the gas chamber is retained, even though Maryland's first execution since 1961 is at least two years away.

Taxpayers, the commissioner said, will end up footing both ends of the bill for such lengthy litigation, defending the state position as well as providing public defenders to represent the convicted murderers.

If the state retains capital punishment, lethal injection "is just a better way to go," Mr. Lanham told the Judicial Proceedings Committee in Annapolis.

Legislation to make the change (Senate Bill 203) is being sponsored this year by Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat who chairs the committee.

After the hearing, Senator Baker predicted his committee probably will pass the bill, saying, "Most people will agree that [injection] is more humane."

But C. Charles Michaels, a lawyer from Baltimore, disagrees. He represents the city chapter of Pax Christi, a Catholic peace and justice organization that opposes the death penalty regardless of the means of execution.

Just because other states are switching to lethal injection "does not mean that it is any more correct or proper," Mr. Michaels said. "An immoral activity cannot be justified by pointing to the number of people who engage in it."

But Sue A. Schenning, a deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, called the change "absolutely essential," describing the gas chamber as antiquated and cumbersome.

If a court should determine its use amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, "that could result in over turning all our [death penalty] cases," she said.

Thirteen murderers are currently under death sentence in Maryland and are awaiting the outcome of their appeals.

In written testimony, the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said the switch to injections would avoid the possibility of accidents with the cyanide and sulfuric acid needed to operate the gas chamber, which is located in the Maryland Penitentiary in downtown Baltimore.

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