Death sentence in Md. would go against trend

Rollins case: As fewer killers are being sent to death row, a Baltimore County judge faces a tough decision.

August 14, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader II is scheduled to decide today whether to add convicted killer Wesley Allen Rollins to the dwindling population on Maryland's death row.

In many ways, the 55-year-old Rollins, who is white, fits the characteristics of a classic Maryland death row inmate. A jury found him guilty in the murder of a white person, which studies say increases the chances of a death sentence. He was prosecuted in Baltimore County, the jurisdiction most likely to seek execution.

While Rollins denied smothering 71-year-old Irene Ebberts of Catonsville, he admitted burglarizing her home.

But if Fader agrees with prosecutors and sends Rollins to death row, it will be a move contrary to an apparent trend in Maryland and nationwide: a growing reluctance on the part of judges and juries to sentence defendants to death.

"The most recent phenomenon is a decline in death sentences, and a decline in death rows across the country," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group with an anti-death penalty tilt. "I think juries are hesitant, even when they find someone guilty, of giving the death penalty."

Nationwide, the number of death sentences has dropped markedly in recent years. From 1995 to 1999, judges and juries handed out an average of 300 death sentences a year. In 2001, the number fell to 155, according to the center.

Death penalty advocates attribute much of that decline to a nationwide decrease in murders. But opponents of capital punishment say juries are simply rejecting a greater number of death sentences.

In federal court, juries have decided not to give the death penalty in 18 of the last 19 cases when federal prosecutors asked for capital punishment.

"It's definitely a trend," said Michael Stark, the Baltimore-Washington coordinator of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "The courts are beginning to look with a more critical eye to what exactly we are doing with the death penalty."

In Maryland, there have been three death sentences since 2000, compared with 10 from 1996 to 1999, according to the Division of Corrections.

At the same time, many inmates have left death row - and not because of executions.

Tyrone Gilliam, the last person to receive a lethal injection from Maryland, was executed in 1998. At that point, there were 16 inmates on death row. Now there are 10. And because of the regular flow of inmates on and off death row, the number of death sentences overturned by the court system is larger than that difference.

Supporters of capital punishment say the cumbersome appeals process and many reversals in death cases have lessened the number of capital sentences sought by prosecutors and imposed by judges or juries.

"I think [the drop in death sentences] may just reflect the frustration that the sentences are not being carried out," said Kent S. Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit group based in California that supports the death penalty.

Since Rollins' conviction in April, Maryland's death row has shrunk by two inmates. In May, the Maryland Court of Appeals ordered a new sentencing hearing for Courtney Bryant, who had been convicted in 2001 of killing a 21-year-old man in Hunt Valley. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Kevin Wiggins' death sentence. Wiggins was sentenced to death in 1989 for killing an elderly woman in Woodlawn.

`Greater scrutiny'

While frustrating to capital punishment supporters, to death penalty opponents these reversals are a sign that the Court of Appeals is on their side.

"I think we're seeing a real trend of greater scrutiny at the court level, so cases are getting overturned," said Jane Henderson, co-director of the Quixote Center, an organization that fights against the death penalty.

And once death sentences are overturned, they are unlikely to be reinstated.

According to a study done last year by Columbia University, in only about 20 percent of cases in which a death sentence is overturned will another death sentence be ordered.

To Scheidegger and others, this reveals a court system failure. "Once we have a system in which sentences are actually being carried out, you're going to see them sought more often," Scheidegger said.

The "unending" appeals process in Maryland's capital punishment system was a reason that Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz decided against death sentences in the county's most recent capital cases.

In the cases of Douglas A. Starliper, convicted of killing two friends in 2001, and Clarence Conyers, who had been on death row but last month had a new trial and sentencing hearing, Levitz said he was loath to give the death penalty because of its impact on victims' families.

"The devastating effect that this unending litigation has on the innocent families of the victims is incalculable," the judge said at the time of the Conyers case.

Levitz sentenced both Starliper and Conyers to two life terms.

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