Death and fairness fail to meet in Senate

Annapolis: Legislators dodge a chance to discuss and fix shortcomings in death penalty.

March 16, 2002

MARYLAND IS a pro-death-penalty state, with a pro-death-penalty legislature.

So it's understandable - if regrettable - that bills seeking moratoriums on executions or the abolition of capital punishment don't get much due in Annapolis.

But two bills quashed by a Senate committee last week weren't about supporting or decrying capital punishment. They were about ensuring that the ultimate punishment is meted out by the highest standards - a concern that ought to be shared by advocates and opponents alike.

The bills' failure and the dismissive way the Senate handled the issue are beyond disappointing. They suggest a legislative unwillingness to even consider real issues that cast doubt on the integrity of Maryland's death penalty statute.

The proposed legislation would have raised the sentencing standard in death penalty cases from "a preponderance of the evidence" to "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is used in nearly every other criminal proceeding.

Changing the standard wouldn't abolish the death penalty in Maryland, nor would it open the doors to moratorium or abolition.

But Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, one of the state's staunchest death penalty supporters, seemed to think it would. When his committee held hearings on the Senate version of the bill last week, he limited several proponents to a minute of speaking time. Even Attorney General Joseph J. Curran, whose office handles the prosecution's side in capital cases on appeal, was barred from speaking longer in favor of the bill.

What did Mr. Baker have to fear from a frank discussion of the issues?

When the Senate committee voted to kill the bill, it effectively made the House version moot. But that won't be the end of the discussion over fairness and death in Maryland. Until this state confronts the shortcomings in its death penalty statute, no amount of legislative avoidance will be sufficient to quiet the critics for good.

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