A higher standard

November 24, 2003

WHEN SENTENCING a criminal to die, there should be no reasonable doubt that he or - rarely - she deserves the death penalty. Executing an individual is the ultimate punishment. Its finality demands a determination "beyond a reasonable doubt."

That's why the recent Maryland Court of Appeals ruling in the case of death row inmate Steven H. Oken must be reconsidered - and the matter taken to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Maryland's high court upheld the application of the state's death penalty and its use of a lower standard of proof in the sentencing phase. It ruled 4-3 that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of Arizona's death penalty law doesn't apply here. Mr. Oken, convicted in the 1987 rape and murder of a White Marsh woman, was headed for execution when the Supreme Court issued its March decision in Ring vs. Arizona.

The principle of requiring a higher standard of proof in the penalty phase of a capital case in Maryland goes beyond one defendant, one man, one life. A high court ruling that would throw out Maryland's reliance on a lower standard of proof in the penalty phase - known as a "preponderance of evidence" - would affect the cases of at least eight death row inmates here and require changes in the law.

The growing body of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases across the country graphically illustrates the flaws in our criminal justice system. And while society can't create the perfect system, it can insist on employing the highest legal standard in deciding a death sentence.

Now in Maryland, a jury must find that evidence in a capital case shows "beyond a reasonable doubt" a defendant's guilt. But the jury uses a lower standard - a preponderance of evidence - to determine if mitigating circumstances in a case outweigh factors that militate in favor of execution.

We would urge the U.S. Supreme Court to take the Oken appeal because it turns on the court's ruling in Ring vs. Arizona. In the Arizona case, the justices held that a defendant has a constitutional right to have a jury weigh the factors in deciding a death sentence. The "reasonable doubt" legal standard was used in Ring.

Mr. Oken's lawyer, Fred W. Bennett, argues that the same higher standard should be applied in Maryland during the sentencing phase.

The judges most qualified to determine whether the Supreme Court's ruling in Ring vs. Arizona applies to Maryland's use of the death penalty are the nine justices in Washington.

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