Finally, a moratorium

May 10, 2002

IT REQUIRED uncommon courage for Gov. Parris N. Glendening to stop all Maryland executions until a study determines whether race taints the capital system.

True, the governor does not face re-election, which diminished the political risks to him. But he still had to transcend his own support for the death penalty, a history of legislative inaction on this issue and the inevitable ire of the pro-death penalty lobby to insist on fairness. It was a moral decision at an important time.

The governor's historic gesture catapults Maryland, and his political legacy, to a rarified existence among the cautious: Only Illinois has called a similar halt to state-sanctioned killing. And his decision duly spares death row inmates the gross injustice of having their penalties exacted before a proper level of fairness has been ensured.

Now, the study Mr. Glendening commissioned takes center stage. And while no one is sure what results it will yield, some of its potential ramifications are already becoming clear.

The legislature, for example, will undoubtedly review the study's findings and consider any recommendations. But unlike in the past, when the legislative leadership has given short shrift to death penalty discussions, the moratorium now adds urgency and purpose to lawmakers' contemplations.

The governor's decision also hoists the study and its findings into the middle of the upcoming gubernatorial race, because Maryland's next leader, not Mr. Glendening, will be in office when the legislature completes its dealings with the study. Marylanders will need to know from Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Congressman Robert Ehrlich and any other gubernatorial hopefuls how they might approach the idea of continuing or lifting the moratorium.

The shortcomings of the study's parameters also become more important now. The report will reveal whether race plays a role in the capital system, but it will not address other troubling wrinkles: geographic disparities that undermine the idea of a consistent, statewide standard; the disturbing number of death row cases in which defendants were represented by inexperienced lawyers; the number of cases in which the evidence against a capital defendant doesn't overwhelm.

The next governor, to ensure fairness, will need to have those issues examined before considering another execution in Maryland. Governor Glendening's study marks the inception of an expansive look at the death penalty; it cannot constitute the totality of that inquiry.

Maryland is now in the forefront of the national debate over capital punishment, thanks to the governor's bold, ethical decision. But maintaining that position will require more of the same from his successor, from the authors of the upcoming report, and from the state's other leaders.

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