Senate's death penalty silence isn't last word

Moratorium: Though legislators failed to act, the governor can halt executions until review is done.

April 12, 2001

WITH THE STENCH of political cowardice wafting behind them, state senators slunk out of their 2001 session Monday without even voting on the death penalty moratorium bill.

So much for the idea that fairness ought to supersede vengeance-minded bloodlust. Forget about leadership staking out the moral - rather than the popular - ground.

The Senate opted to keep the state's questionable killing machine churning, even as a study commissioned by the governor examines whether the capital system is tainted or broken.

What a shame that legislators embraced such an illogical and frightening decision.

It associates Maryland closely with states that kill often and with impunity, rather than states such as Illinois, where a pro-death penalty governor unilaterally halted executions to take stock of how and why death is meted out.

But the Senate's pitiful acquiescence to recklessness doesn't have to be the final chapter here.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening was the one who initiated the death penalty study in the first place, and he's the one who signs off on all executions.

He can muster the courage our senators lacked and refuse to pass final judgment on any more Maryland prisoners before the study is completed. He can keep us from killing now, only to find out later that race or some other taint helped railroad a prisoner.

The governor's prudence could not be more important.

This year, the state is poised to execute as many as four inmates. That would be its most prolific killing spree since the death penalty was revived in 1978.

Already, the governor has acknowledged the possibility that racial bias may be the reason African-Americans are overrepresented on death row. (Three of the four facing imminent execution are black.) And there may be other serious problems with the system, too.

One of the four who could be killed this year was allowed to defend himself at trial. Another had a lawyer who did not sufficiently raise questions about his mental stability - a mitigating factor that could have kept him off death row.

Yes, all of these prisoners' cases have been through state and federal courts. And yes, their appeals have been rejected at every level.

But sadly, that doesn't guarantee the certainty of guilt that should be ascertained before the state imposes the ultimate penalty.

Kirk Bloodsworth was twice convicted of capital murder in Maryland courts before a DNA test showed he could not have been guilty.

And Eugene Colvin-el came within a week of execution last year, even though not a shred of physical evidence connected him with the murder for which he was convicted. The governor had to intervene to spare his life, after the courts failed to do so.

You can find stories like these in too many cells on Maryland's death row, occupied by prisoners whose cases are marked by doubt - rather than fairness.

It's up to Mr. Glendening to make sure those doubts are erased before the state of Maryland passes irreversible judgment on any more lives.

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