Execution puts Md. with 22 other states

May 18, 1994|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Writer

An article on the death penalty in Wednesday's edition incorrectly reported the year of the Supreme Court's decision in Furman vs. Georgia, which held that the death penalty was being applied in an unconstitutional manner.

The decision was announced in 1972.

The Sun regrets the errors.

In taking the life of John Thanos early yesterday, Maryland became the 23rd state to carry out the ultimate punishment since the Supreme Court lifted an unofficial ban on the death penalty in 1976.

But while 11 states have resumed executions just since 1990, the number of executions remains a small fraction of the level in the early decades of this century: 38 executions nationwide last year, for instance, compared to 200 in the peak year of 1936.


The vast majority of executions have been carried out in the South, with Texas, Florida and Virginia alone accounting for more than half the prisoners put to death during the last 17 years. Thirteen states, mostly in the North, and the District of Columbia have no death penalty statute. Fourteen others have a death penalty, but have not yet executed anyone.

By starting with the execution of a white man, and thus avoiding the divisive issue of discrimination against black prisoners, Maryland followed the example of 21 of the 23 states implementing the death penalty. Of the 240 Americans executed since 1976, 55 percent have been white, 39 percent black, 14 percent Hispanic and 1 percent native American.

Like Thanos, the first prisoners executed in eight of the 23 states hastened their deaths by voluntarily abandoning the appeals process, which can take as long as 14 years to exhaust.

Despite steadily growing support for the death penalty since the from a crime-weary public, capital punishment still deeply divides Americans along political, regional and racial lines. Like abortion and gun control, capital punishment remains a visceral issue whose partisans amass contradictory evidence but ultimately take their stand on faith.

"I'd say it's good Maryland finally did it," said Ernest van den Haag, a retired professor of jurisprudence at Fordham University and one of the nation's most prominent advocates of the death penalty. "I think it's just, and I hope it will reduce the murder rate."

With some 24,500 homicides and 38 executions last year, Mr. van den Haag said, the death penalty remains "largely symbolic" in the United States.

"We execute only 2 percent a year of prisoners on death row," he said. "Most of them will die of old age."

But he insisted that even at that rate, the death penalty does deter premeditated murder and is a rational reaction to crime.

"There is very little we can do about the root causes of crime," said Mr. van den Haag, a distinguished scholar at the Heritage Foundation. "I don't see how the government can get people to go back to religion or to family values. But the government can punish."

Hugo Adam Bedau, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University and awell-known opponent of capital punishment, expressed disappointment at the news about Thanos.

"I'm sorry to see this long moratorium come to an end in Maryland," Mr. Bedau said. "It's farcical, or tragic, depending on your point of view, to see how legislatures have restored the death penalty with no regard for whether it has any effect, apart from satisfying people's desire for vengeance."

He said the United States "anachronistically and inconsistently" retains the death penalty "while giving up most other brutal forms of punishment, such as flogging."

According to Amnesty International, 103 countries still impose the death penalty for some ordinary crimes. Fifty-three countries have abolished it altogether, including nearly every European state; 16 more apply it only in extraordinary circumstances, such as during wartime; and another 21 have not executed anyone in a decade or more.

Mr. Bedau said the widespread use of the death penalty in southern states is explained in part by Southerners' traditional advocacy of states' rights and resentment of meddling from Washington, especially in matters tinged with race.

After the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 in Furman vs. Georgia that the death penalty was being applied in an unconstitutional manner, southern states "enacted new death penalty statutes most quickly, with no research and no debate and only anger at those nine old men in Washington," Mr. Bedau said.

Moreover, he said, "unquestionably the death penalty in the South is connected to historical attitudes toward race," with blacks who kill whites disproportionately targeted.

Mr. van den Haag, by contrast, attributed the southern predominance in death cases to the fact that "the South is far more traditional than the North" and that "the North is more infected with liberal ideology." He said he thought racism was no longer a major factor.

In Texas, which leads the ranks of the death penalty states with 76 executions since 1982, execution has become routine.

"In 1982, we had hundreds of people waiting outside the prison," said Charles L. Brown, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "Now there's almost nobody. We have five places for the media, and in a number of cases we've had only four takers. I guess after you've done 76, the interest isn't there."

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