A lesson in Illinois that's good for Maryland

April 21, 2002

THERE'S MORE that's wrong with Illinois' death penalty than there is that's right. Too many ways for the innocent to be executed, too broad and vague a description of what death-eligible crimes are, too many opportunities for injustice to impinge upon the process.

But the governor in that state knows capital punishment isn't working. And two years ago, Gov. George Ryan called a halt to executions and appointed a commission to study ways to flatten the wrinkles of unfairness that appear throughout the system.

This week, that commission made 85 recommendations that, if implemented, would completely reshape the way the death penalty is administered there.

Marylanders, take notice. Many of the problems found in Illinois' system should look terribly familiar to people here. And as the Illinois report inspires a national debate over how and why the ultimate punishment is meted out, that same hard thinking ought to take place here in the Free State.

Many of the suggestions in the Illinois report involve common-sense safeguards to protect against abuses in the capital system. The commission said police should videotape interviews with homicide suspects in cases with capital implications. It said independent DNA and forensic testing should be pursued in death penalty cases. It discouraged the use of "jailhouse snitches."

In Maryland, those issues haven't been widespread problems in capital cases, but implementing those kinds of protections makes sense anyway. The Illinois commission rightly pointed out that death -- being the one irreversible punishment -- ought to require a heightened sensitivity to due process. Nothing wrong with being safe rather than sorry.

More important, though, the Illinois commission's suggestions regarding eligibility for the death penalty were even more on point in Maryland. The commission proposed that a standardized process be adopted for every state's attorney in Illinois to follow when determining which cases should be prosecuted for death. And it asked that murders committed in the course of other felonies no longer be death-eligible.

Maryland's death row would look very different -- and its makeup might approach some notion of fairness -- if those recommendations were implemented here.

For starters, some 70 percent of death row inmates might not be from Baltimore County -- a jurisdiction that records fewer than 10 percent of the state's murders each year. A uniform selection process would prevent Baltimore County prosecutor Sandra A. O'Connor from using a more inclusive -- and ultimately less cautious -- interpretation of the law than other state's attorneys.

Similarly, if murders committed in the course of other felonies were removed from eligibility, the bulk of Maryland's capital cases would no longer qualify for death.

In Illinois, the commission studying the death penalty concluded that the "course of a felony" eligibility factor lends capital punishment to disparate application and overuse. It allows maximum prosecution for murders that, other than their associated felonies, are no more horrific than others.

Death, the commission pointed out, should be reserved for the worst of all killers -- those whose killing alone suggests no other punishment could conceivably be appropriate. Cop-killers. People who kill in prison. Murderers who torture, and those who kill witnesses, jurors or judges.

Those are more clearly defined parameters than simply allowing anyone who kills during the course of a robbery to face the ultimate punishment. They are fairer distinctions -- and that's why Maryland should consider them, too.

This state has its own death penalty commission, one that is looking at potential racial disparities in the system. When its report is released later this year, state officials will decide whether fixes need to be enacted. Already, gubernatorial hopeful Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has said she would consider a moratorium here if race is found to taint capital decisions.

But why stop there? Illinois' study shows the problems with capital punishment extend beyond race to affect the entire system.

Marylanders deserve to witness a similar examination -- and the implementation of any remedies that might make us more certain that all attempts at fairness have been exhausted before a life is taken in the name of justice.

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