Death penalty stands differ

Townsend, Ehrlich for it, but their philosophies vary

Fall report to add fuel to issue

Issues 2002

August 06, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A one-line summary of where Maryland's two leading gubernatorial candidates stand on the death penalty would imply they are of equal minds: Both believe people should die for committing certain crimes.

But a closer examination of their positions, especially on the state's temporary halt to executions, shows significant philosophical differences. And it offers insight into how they make decisions.

The death penalty and the fairness of its application has yet to become a major issue in the governor's race. Of the 1,200 likely voters questioned last month in a statewide poll conducted for The Sun, only two people said the death penalty was the most important problem facing Maryland.

So it's no wonder neither Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend nor Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. makes any mention of it in their position papers or on their Web sites, and that neither is eager to talk to voters about such a polarizing issue.

But this fall, the topic is certain to take a central and potentially divisive role in the campaign. A state-sponsored study of whether capital punishment is meted out fairly with regard to skin color and jurisdiction is to be released next month.

On May 9, as four death warrants were making their way to his desk for review, Gov. Parris N. Glendening reversed his position on a moratorium and effectively imposed one by pledging not to approve any executions before the study was published and the next legislature had a chance to consider it when it meets in January.

Death penalty opponents believe there is a fundamental difference between the candidates to succeed Glendening.

"Ehrlich has said there's no need for a moratorium, and he would just go ahead and execute people," said Jane Henderson of the Quixote Center, a faith-based organization that advocates social justice. "Kathleen's at least at a point to say, `Let's make sure it's fair.'"

Henderson's lobbying strategy -- and that of many lawmakers who pushed for the moratorium -- has been to frame the debate around race.

14 men on death row

Fourteen men are on Maryland's death row, nine of whom are black. Of their 19 victims, 17 were white. "There's a real tie to civil rights issues here," Henderson said. "That's where it plays into the campaign."

Last month's poll showed that although Marylanders in general are split on the moratorium, 62 percent of African-American voters support it.

Townsend began inching toward public support of the moratorium in late March as she prepared her campaign for governor. In a recent interview, she would not say whether she had been in favor of it all along.

"What I try to do is not go into where I agreed or disagreed with the governor," Townsend said. But, she added, she now feels the moratorium is necessary to give citizens confidence in the state's criminal justice system.

"It just seemed to me that when we are studying our own application of the death penalty, we would hate to have a study come out and say, `This is not just or something wasn't fair,' and somebody had been executed," she said "Because that is such a final, final punishment."

Townsend said she was not comfortable discussing possible problems with the state's use of the death penalty before seeing the study.

She is mindful that the moratorium might cause pain to victims' families. "As you know, I've been a victim. I understand," she said, referring to the killing of her father, Robert F. Kennedy.

Although her intention would be eventually to resume state executions, Townsend would wait for the General Assembly to analyze the study and act on it before signing any death warrants, she said.

By contrast, Ehrlich rejects the need for any delay in state executions. And he, like other Republicans, questions the timing of Glendening's moratorium, which he suspects was put in place to take political pressure off Townsend.

"That would be my predisposition -- just to get rid of it," he said of the moratorium.

Ehrlich agrees with the moratorium imposed in 2000 by Illinois Gov. George Ryan because that state encountered "serious issues with regard to guilt or innocence," he said. But in Maryland, he is confident the death penalty statute is constitutional, and that prosecutors are using it properly.

He does not buy the argument that something is amiss when murderers in Baltimore County are overwhelmingly more likely than those in the city to receive a death sentence. (Nine death row inmates were prosecuted in the county.)

`All about discretion'

"The criminal justice system is all about discretion, as a function of politics, by the way," he said. "It's built on a diversity of political views. [Baltimore County State's Attorney] Sandra O'Connor has been elected seven times ... so it's fair to say people in Baltimore County like her position."

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