A part of the job governors would rather not perform

June 06, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- So if anybody is going to keep Flint Gregory Hunt out of Maryland's gas chamber, it won't be Parris Glendening. The governor seems to have made up his mind that saving this particular murderer isn't worth the political risk.

That's bad luck for Hunt, who shot a police officer 11 years ago and whose execution was recently stayed by the courts at least until September. But it's really no surprise. Although a governor who is both strong-willed and politically secure might have dared to commute this particular death sentence, that's not the governor Maryland has.

Sympathy for the governor

For any governor, letting an execution proceed is a heavy responsibility -- a part of the job most who win it quite naturally hope they won't have to perform. And as Hunt's and other capital cases move inexorably toward his desk, it's natural and appropriate to feel sympathy for Mr. Glendening.

In announcing that he would not intervene to save Hunt, the governor said he found the death penalty a ''reasonable'' punishment in this particular case. Most Marylanders, on the basis of what they've read or heard about it, would probably agree. But even so, it was a real test of Mr. Glendening's resolve, because there are some small but significant mitigating factors in Hunt's behalf.

One is that the murder of Baltimore policeman Vincent Adolfo took place in hot blood, as the officer pursued Hunt into an alley as he ran from a stolen car. It was undeniably the murder of a police officer, which under Maryland law is a capital crime, but it was not a cold and calculated slaying.

This distinction may have been in the minds of those three members of the jury which convicted Hunt who are now saying that they would have preferred that he receive a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. That, however, was not an option available to them at the time of the trial.

And secondly, Hunt now, 11 years later, seems sincerely contrite. That's no consolation to the Adolfo family, of course, but it distinguishes him from a number of other killers convicted after well-publicized trials. Many of those, convicted when capital punishment had been abolished in Maryland, aren't even on death row. Some remain defiantly unrepentant.

Maryland, like many other states, has been through a period of several decades in which, for a combination of social, political and judicial reasons, virtually no one was executed. And during that time, certain crimes occurred which cried out for capital punishment. Yet it was not imposed on the perpetrators, to the outrage of much of the public.

You can pick examples almost at random. There are scores of them. What about the burglar, caught at night in a supermarket by the manager making a visit with his 6-year-old son, who calculatedly shot the manager to death in front of the child? More recently, what about the carjackers who stole a car with a child in it and dragged the child's screaming mother to death? If these were not crimes of ultimate evil, deserving an ultimate response, then such crimes do not exist.

Moving testimony

Back in the well-meaning 1960s, when Maryland first decided to eliminate capital punishment, Theodore McKeldin made an emotional appearance before the legislature to talk about the convicts he had allowed to go to their deaths during his time as governor. It was moving testimony, and helped bring about repeal of the death penalty.

But the testimony of the victims of crime is moving too, and that is what is currently carrying more weight as the pendulum swings back. By coincidence, it was almost exactly five years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court ended its 1990-91 term with a precedent-shattering decision that jurors considering the sentence of a convicted murderer could hear from the victim's family.

That decision had special resonance for Maryland, because one of the precedents it reversed concerned a 1987 Maryland case. In that case, Booth v. Maryland, the high court had held that inclusion of a so-called ''victim impact statement'' in the pre-sentence report violated the defendant's Eighth Amendment constitutional right to a fair trial.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist made the point that by barring such statements, ''Booth deprives the state of the full moral force of its evidence and may prevent the jury from having all the information necessary to determine the proper punishment for a first-degree murder.''

So, with full moral force restored to the process, Maryland courts now consider the victims of crime in the sentencing process. If that eventually proves to be terminally bad luck for Flint Gregory Hunt, it will come as a relief for the relatives of Officer Vincent Adolfo.

For years, in dealing with the most horrendous crimes, the state of Maryland deliberately pulled its punches. But it's much harder to do that now, as Parris Glendening's recent inaction eloquently reminds us.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 6/06/96

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