A death sentence that can't pass muster

No surprise: Maryland's capital system is rife with errors, insufficient cases and unfairness.

October 17, 2001

LIKE HOUSES built on paper foundations, Maryland's death row cases are crumbling, folding and disintegrating at a staggering rate.

A year and a half ago, 17 men were condemned to die in this state. Now there are merely 11.

The six who dodged a state-sanctioned death had cases that were dogged by procedural errors, a paucity of evidence connecting them to the crimes or unconscionably bad legal representation.

And now comes Kevin Wiggins, a borderline-retarded death row inmate who has always insisted he didn't kill 77-year-old Florence Lacs in 1988.

A federal judge recently declared that no rational juror could ever have found that Wiggins committed the crime. There was no real evidence to suggest he did, the judge said. Prosecutors tried to make a solid case from porous material.

As Wiggins prepares to leave death row (as he should) the message in all of these cases is clear: Capital punishment is a sick joke in Maryland, a fundamentally broken system that allows the shoddiest of cases to result in ultimate judgment.

The longer the state continues to operate its capital system without a serious review of how and why decisions get made about who lives and who dies, the less integrity our entire judicial system will have.

Wiggins' case is a good example of the problems -- it's weak and circumstantial but by no means aberrant in the twisted world of Maryland's death penalty.

Prosecutors had no material evidence connecting Wiggins to the murder; they could only surmise that he killed Lacs because he was in possession of her car and credit cards. His fingerprints weren't in Lacs' house, and five other unidentified fingerprints were.

Wiggins' trial attorneys were inexperienced (one was later fired from the public defenders' office) and they failed to introduce evidence at his sentencing of the childhood abuse he suffered or his limited IQ, which stood at 72 when he was 10 years old.

There's no question that Wiggins should leave death row, or that the state should back off any efforts to reverse the federal judge's ruling.

His conviction has always been a farce.

But the state should go further to correct the capital system, too.

The circumstances in Wiggins' case are all too familiar.

Eugene Colvin-el, whose death sentence was commuted by the governor last year, had a case in which the evidence was nearly as sparse as Wiggins'. (In fact, Maryland Court of Appeals Judge John C. Eldridge once wrote in an opinion that the evidence in Wiggins' case was "just as weak" as the evidence in Colvin-el's.)

Several other death row inmates suffered unimaginable abuse as children -- and had lawyers who failed to introduce that abuse at sentencing, where it could have made a difference. At least one has a low IQ.

It's time for a serious examination of the death penalty, and a halt to executions while that takes place.

Already, a commission appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening is exploring racial disparities in the state's death penalty, but the cascade of death sentences that have been overturned for other reasons certainly points toward myriad problems in the system.

A bill calling for a moratorium on death sentences passed the House of Delegates last spring, and might have passed the Senate if it had been brought to a vote.

The legislature should not balk when it meets in January.

Fix the system, and stop the killing while the repairs take place.

Any other course of action defies common sense, fairness and any notion that justice is the goal behind state-sanctioned killing.

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