Pause for repairs

March 12, 2003

THE MARYLAND SENATE is expected to be called upon today to cast one of those rare votes that require lawmakers to put aside petty and parochial concerns for a higher purpose. Senators are being asked to formally extend last year's death penalty moratorium in order to figure out how the clearly broken system used to impose capital punishment in this state can be fixed.

Logic suggests this shouldn't be a tough vote. It's not about whether Maryland should have a death penalty, it's just about taking every possible step to ensure that the ultimate punishment is fairly applied throughout the state.

Yet emotions run so high on this issue it is rarely approached without a great deal of anguish. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller can do his colleagues a favor by taking a clear stand in support of the moratorium and securing Senate approval.

Senator Miller has already acknowledged that Maryland's death penalty isn't working. Three people have been executed over the past 25 years, while a dozen more await their fate on death row. Putting aside the debatable questions of deterrence, justice or revenge, there is much evidence to suggest that the standard for imposing death sentences varies widely in the state.

A recent study concluded, for example, that capital punishment is far more likely to be imposed in Maryland on blacks who kill whites than on whites who kill blacks, or even than on blacks who kill blacks.

Behind those statistics is a geographic imbalance. Prosecutors in the mostly white suburbs seek the death penalty far more often than prosecutors in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, where victims are more likely to be black.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele has been charged by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. with studying ways in which more fairness and uniformity can be built into the system. Mr. Steele needs time to carry out his mission before further executions are conducted.

Mr. Ehrlich, who campaigned on a promise to lift the moratorium, has threatened to veto legislation reinstating it. Mr. Miller is using that veto threat as his excuse for voting against the moratorium bill today, calling the measure an exercise in futility.

This is too important an issue for him to weasel out of that way. If the General Assembly puts a moratorium bill on Mr. Ehrlich's desk, he might have a change of heart.

As the leader with by far the most experience in Annapolis, Mr. Miller should do what good leaders do: Get out in front on the tough ones, so others can follow.

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