Opponents of death penalty call for stay

Clergy, activists say race sways sentencing

March 03, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

More than a dozen clergy and death-penalty foes came to Annapolis yesterday to urge a House committee to pass a bill imposing a three-year moratorium on executions in Maryland.

Many of the bill's supporters stressed that they were not testifying as opponents of the death penalty. They said they were concerned that the sentence might be unfairly imposed on the basis of race. Of the 17 people on death row in Maryland, 13 are black.

"There are real problems here," Michael L. Radelet, a researcher from the University of Florida, told the House Judiciary Committee. "The purpose of this bill is to hold off for a while and then go on from there."

The bill, sponsored by Del. Salima S. Marriott, calls for a moratorium until June 30, 2003, a year after the completion of a proposed study on the state's death penalty. Marriott said the extra year would give the General Assembly a chance to examine the study's findings.

"City councils around the nation have passed resolutions urging moratoriums," said Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat from the 40th District. "The time is now for Maryland to have a moratorium on the death penalty."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who supports the death penalty, has put $225,000 in this year's budget for the study.

Studies of Maryland's death penalty statute and of its implementation are not new. Two studies have been done in the past 10 years. One study completed in 1996 noted a "cause for concern" with the statute.

Del. Kenneth C. Montague, a Baltimore Democrat and committee member, played down that study. "It was a complete waste of time," said Montague, who worked on the study. "There was no consistent person who was there to do the analysis."

Joseph I. Cassilly, speaking against the bill for the Maryland State's Attorneys Association, said a moratorium would be "a cruel and perverse twist" for the families of victims killed by the men on death row. Cassilly was the only person who testified against the bill.

"You just do not have the problems that are portrayed here," said Cassilly, state's attorney for Harford County.

Similar bills have been introduced before in the General Assembly. Richard J. Dowling, representing the Roman Catholic bishops of the archdiocese, said his group has lobbied for this type of legislation for six years.

"If the study shows that racial bias does not skew state death penalty proceedings, your positive action on this bill will have cost no more than the price of keeping a few men alive for a few more years," Dowling said. "This seems to us a small price to pay in the pursuit of justice."

Between 1970 and 1995, 68 inmates were released from death rows across the nation because of doubts about their guilt.

In Maryland, Kirk N. Bloodsworth was released from prison after a DNA test supported his claim of innocence. Bloodsworth, who had been sentenced to death for the rape and slaying of a 9-year-old girl, spent nine years in prison before being set free.

The bill faces an almost insurmountable hurdle in the General Assembly. Even if it gets out of the committee and the House of Delegates, its eventual destination would be the highly conservative Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

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