Death penalty debate revived by appeal in double-slaying case Md. statute invalid, Williams' lawyers say

April 12, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

It is expensive, controversial and has been carried out only once in 35 years.

And Maryland's death penalty will be debated again today when lawyers for Scotland Eugene Williams appear before the state's highest court to plead for his life.

Williams, convicted in the 1994 shooting deaths of Washington lawyers Julie Gilbert and Jose Trias in their weekend home near Annapolis, is under two death sentences.

His lawyers say the death penalty statue is unconstitutional because it allows a judge or jury to use a less-stringent standard to decide whether to impose the penalty than they would use to determine guilt.

Experts say the argument has ramifications far beyond Williams' case.

"It's not a stock argument that's put in every brief. It's a very viable issue," said Gary Christopher, a federal public defender and a member of a 1993 commission that examined Maryland's death penalty.

The commission recommended several changes, including switching the method of execution from the gas chamber to lethal injection, which became law in 1994.

Williams' appeal, which is to be argued before the Court of Appeals, also has rekindled the emotionally charged debate over whether Maryland should be one of 39 states to execute murderers.

Opponents of the death penalty say it is immoral, no matter how it is administered.

Sheldon S. Cohen, Julie Gilbert's former law partner, is opposed to putting her killer to death.

Mr. Cohen, who sat through part of the Williams' trial last year, said the murders led him to re-examine his feelings about the death penalty but that he came to the same conclusions he had reached years ago.

"If the death penalty is ever appropriate, it's appropriate in this case," he said. "The problem is that the death penalty is really vengeance, and vengeance doesn't solve anything."

State Sen. Decatur W. Trotter of Prince George's County, who blocked a measure to speed death penalty appeals in 1994 by quoting from the Bible for more than an hour on the Senate floor, agreed.

"It's not administered fairly, it's not effective, it's not a deterrent, and it does not allow you any way to correct a mistake," he said.

Death penalty supporters say the appeals process takes too long.

"Anyone who blows away someone else, they destroy not only that person's life but the family of the victims as well," said Michael Chapman, who began lobbying the General Assembly to speed the appeals process in 1993 after two acquaintances were killed in a bank robbery near his Randallstown gardening shop.

The last inmate executed in Maryland was John Thanos, who was given a lethal injection May 17, 1994, four years after he killed two Baltimore County teen-agers. It was the first execution in Maryland since Nathaniel Lipscomb was put to death June 10, 1961, for raping and strangling three East Baltimore women.

Thanos cut short his life by waiving his appeals. Flint Gregory Hunt, who was convicted in the Nov. 18, 1985, shooting death of Vincent Joseph Adolfo, a Baltimore police officer, has not exhausted his appeals.

He might not do so for years because of lengthy state and federal appeals, said Gary E. Bair, head of the Maryland attorney general's criminal appeals division and chairman of the death penalty commission.

Hunt has asked Baltimore Circuit Judge David Ross for a new trial on several grounds, including claims that two jurors were unqualified and that a witness cut a deal with prosecutors, then lied about making the deal.

Hunt's lawyers declined to discuss the specifics of their case.

Officer Adolfo's relatives also declined to be interviewed but said the extensive appeals process has left them feeling frustrated and powerless.

"What that man did just tore this family up," said Mary Adolfo, the victim's aunt.

Friends and families of Williams' victims say they are likely to be ,, just as frustrated.

Hunt and Williams are among 15 inmates under death sentences in Maryland. There are no accurate estimates on costs for death penalty cases, but the death penalty commission found in 1993 that the average cost was $300,000 to $400,000 for the trial and appeals.

The state Division of Correction estimates that it costs $20,000 a year to keep an inmate in jail.

Mr. Christopher, the 1993 commission member, said the Court of Appeals judges might look to recent Supreme Court death penalty rulings for direction but that the nation's highest court has been inconsistent.

"The Supreme Court's been all over the charts on what is required in a death penalty statute," Mr. Christopher said. "Who knows what's good law now? We really don't know."

Pub Date: 4/12/96

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