A stay of execution Death penalty: Hunt case is starkly different from Thanos' plea to die.

June 02, 1996

NOTHING IS easy about the death penalty. Because the punishment leaves no room for error, the criminal justice system must be extremely careful about imposing the penalty. But because it represents to many people an act of final justice, the inevitable delays exacerbate the roller-coaster emotions of the families hurt by the crime.

Maryland is now seeing the passions of the death penalty played out in full force as the state faces its first contested execution in 35 years. In granting a stay of execution for Flint Gregory Hunt, the Court of Appeals has postponed a scheduled June execution until after it can hear the arguments against the penalty when it reconvenes in September.

Meanwhile, Marylanders have much to ponder on this impassioned issue. Unlike John Thanos, who was executed in May 1994, Hunt expresses remorse and asks for mercy. From prison -- where he will remain without possibility of parole if he is spared execution -- he has apologized to the family of his victim. He has cultivated a relationship with his son, who begs the state not to execute his father. Hunt has, in other words, shown that spark of potential for change that is itself the most eloquent argument against execution. As the Roman Catholic Church points out in its efforts to encourage a respect for life at all stages: Who is to judge that any human life is beyond all hope?

That is not to say that Flint Gregory Hunt should ever be held up as a model human being, or that he should not pay for his heinous crime by spending his life behind bars. Rather, it is a statement that we do not build a stronger, more just society by putting criminals to death.

That is especially true when those who receive the death penalty come disproportionately from minority populations. From the 1920s until 1961, when Maryland began a moratorium on executions that lasted 33 years, 75 percent of those executed were black. That was troubling enough. Now, however, an even higher percentage of criminals on death row -- 14 of 17 -- are black. Given those statistics, can anyone be sure this state can execute people in a fair and even-handed way?

When Hunt was sentenced to death, jurors did not have the option of giving him life without parole. Since then, legislators have added that choice for juries, and some jurors in the Hunt case have testified that they would have favored that sentence. Life behind bars would serve the cause of justice, without exacting an unacceptable toll on the conscience of society.

Pub date: 6/02/96

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