No moratorium on city's streets

February 09, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

WHILE ACADEMICS and public officials debate the fairness of Maryland's death penalty, self-appointed executioners roam the streets of Baltimore.

"Dead by murder" this year holds an early lead over last year's toll. Far more people have been put to death in the city - more than 3,000 over the last decade - than the 83 souls dispatched by the state in all of its history.

We are talking about different things, to be sure: killing done by criminals in the pursuit of their crimes and killing done by the state in response to the worst of those crimes.

But discussions of capital punishment take on an oddly abstract tone in the face of casualty reports from the killing streets where fairness comes down to who has a gun. And the apparent answer: almost everyone.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Democrat, belatedly called for an end to the death penalty the other day. He's been in public office for years but waited until now to express his views.

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants to go in the other direction. He's been a death penalty advocate and made his position clear during last year's campaign. Once in office, he lifted a moratorium on executions in Maryland - even as a study commission raised troubling questions about who dies and why.

It's never easy, these questions of crime and punishment.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a death penalty opponent, wants another study. Why are black murderers so much more likely to be executed if their victims are white? Is the answer racism? Does it have to do with the county where the crime was committed and tried? How can race and geography be removed from the equation?

Is another study needed to make certain that death is meted out even handedly? Surely. Maybe that can happen while the governor and lieutenant governor try to resolve what look like irreconcilable differences. Mr. Steele says he thinks executions could go on while a further study is completed. But suppose that further study uncovers faults so egregious that someone already executed might have been spared?

Meanwhile, we contemplate death meted out daily on the streets of Baltimore as if killing one's antagonist was the right of all citizens - as if the rule of law had been suspended.

Despite the best efforts of Mayor Martin O'Malley and his police force, drug lords and their many lieutenants do not hesitate to act as judge, jury and executioner. The pettiest offense carries death as a sentence. People say killers reign because Baltimore juries don't trust police and won't convict black defendants - or because the state's attorney declines to seek the death penalty. Death is then administered by remorseless shooters who kill each other - and cops and bystanders. No appeals. No moratoriums. No mercy.

Mayor O'Malley calls upon the citizenry to "Believe" their lives can be different, less dangerous, more productive, safe enough to observe from the front porch on a spring evening.

Massive "Believe" banners hang from the National Aquarium, from the old USF&G building downtown, from a Charles Village elementary school - from the anchors of city life, from the symbols of a civilized society mocked by killers who shoot indiscriminately into crowds, assassinate people in their cars or torch houses.

During his State of the State address, Governor Ehrlich flashed one of the mayor's black-and-white "Believe" lapel pins. He pulled it out briefly at about the time he said Maryland needs Project Exile, the program that helped Richmond, Va., reduce its murder rate.

The governor's signal of solidarity with the mayor of Baltimore was hardly noticed. But it was critically important - particularly if there's real follow-through. If anyone is to lift the death penalty invoked mandatorily on Baltimore streets, the governor and the mayor must do much of the heavy lifting.

Both men have advocated Project Exile. It could help. It ought to be tried. But it ought to be a plan that builds on and tailors the Richmond model rather than simply copies it. Project Exile's success has been attributed to the prospect of sure, swift convictions and long sentences in places where friends and family can't visit without an airplane ticket. Surely that leverage is needed.

And soon. There's no moratorium on death in Baltimore. The executioners don't even discuss it.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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