Attorney general calls for abolition of Md. death penalty

Curran says threat of executing innocent people is too great

January 31, 2003|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Flanked by lawmakers and religious leaders, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. called yesterday for abolishing Maryland's death penalty for fear that the state will one day kill an innocent person.

He also announced that legislation to that effect would be introduced in the General Assembly today.

Curran has been an opponent of capital punishment for decades but decided to speak out now, he said, because so many death row inmates could be executed in the coming months.

Convicted murderer Steven H. Oken is scheduled to die the week of March 17, and prosecutors are likely to seek death warrants for six other men soon.

"In the fractured history of the death penalty in Maryland, this is a watershed moment," said Curran, who sent a letter yesterday to the governor pressing his point. "The moratorium is gone. We need to address this head-on."

When asked whether his position created a conflict with the duties of his office - which handles the appeals of death row inmates - Curran said no, pointing out that he presided over the cases of the three men executed in Maryland since capital punishment was reinstated here in 1978.

He has instructed state's attorneys and lawyers working in his office to "follow the law," he said.

Nevertheless, Curran said, he worries that human error could eventually result in a wrongful execution. "So let me say it again: Capital punishment comes only at the intolerable risk of killing an innocent person," he said.

The alternative of life in prison allows for the possibility that prosecutors could correct a mistake, he added, noting two recent Maryland cases in which inmates were freed because of DNA evidence.

In 1994, Kirk N. Bloodsworth was released after nine years in prison, seven of which the Cambridge waterman spent on death row after he was convicted in the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl. And in November, Bernard Webster, 40, was released from prison after serving 20 years for the rape of a Towson woman.

Death penalty opponents said they were confident Curran's public stance will help broaden their message and encourage more statewide officials to do the same.

One of those standing behind Curran was Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat who plans to introduce a bill today abolishing the death penalty.

Her hope is that if it passes, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would not allow executions to go forward until the bill takes effect in October.

However a spokesman for Ehrlich, a strong death penalty supporter, said the governor would veto any legislation regarding a moratorium or abolition of capital punishment.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele - who opposes the death penalty - sounded a softer tone than his boss yesterday. With Ehrlich's blessing, he has initiated further study of apparent racial discrepancies in who gets sentenced to death.

"We'll wait and see what the bill looks like," Steele said of Grosfeld's legislation. "If the passions are out there to abolish the death penalty, we'll have to debate it and see where it goes."

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said yesterday that although his panel might approve a moratorium bill, he doubted his members would pass an abolition bill.

If either bill makes it to the Senate floor, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said it will get fair treatment. Two years ago, with Miller's approval, senators attempted a partial filibuster of a moratorium bill, which died in the final minutes of the General Assembly session.

"I would expect extended debate on any death penalty bills," Miller said. "The public expects it. The people are entitled to see how their elected representatives vote on this issue."

Grosfeld's legislation will join six other General Assembly bills related to capital punishment. Two of those would reinstate a moratorium and another would create a stricter standard of proof in death penalty cases.

Two others would expand capital murder charges to apply to killers of children under age 12 and of off-duty police officers. Another measure would require prosecutors to seek death sentences in every eligible case.

Sun staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this article.

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