Matters of principle

February 24, 2004

WHEN A JURY exercises its ultimate power, deciding to end a life, the highest principles and procedural safeguards must be applied to ensure that the outcome can be called justice.

Maryland's sentencing standard falls short, three judges of the state's highest court said last week in a decision reversing the death sentence of convicted murderer John A. Miller IV. Their ruling is a call for the use of a higher burden of proof when juries weigh the issues in capital cases, and we applaud that decision.

Under Maryland law, for the death sentence to be used, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant caused the victim's death. They also must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the case involves an "aggravating factor," which in Maryland can be a felony, such as rape committed with the murder.

A lower standard is used, however, when prosecutors must prove that aggravating factors in the case outweigh any factors that might support using a lesser sentence; such mitigating factors might include a defendant's troubled childhood.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and two colleagues on the Maryland Court of Appeals used the Miller case to protest the use of the lower standard. Death penalty opponents hope that they'll hammer this matter of principle each time capital cases come before them, until the drumbeat forces a change in the law. Challenges to their decision are being considered; the ruling could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Until then, the Maryland judges are standing on a rock-solid foundation - a call for basic fairness in a system extensively studied and already found to be wanting. A year ago, state leaders lifted a moratorium on executions despite a University of Maryland study confirming disparities in Maryland death sentences: Defendants who killed white people were more likely to be sentenced to death than killers of nonwhites, and prosecutors in some counties seek capital murder charges far more often than those in others.

In addition to the systemic flaws identified, death penalty cases frequently fall apart on the basis of their handling. Three of the seven judges on the appellate court also decided that Mr. Miller's jury should have been told that a key witness, a cellmate of Mr. Miller's, may have been granted leniency in his own case in return for his testimony.

The Miller case was undeniably heinous. He lured a teen-ager to his home with the false promise of a baby-sitting job, and then assaulted and killed her. The appellate court upheld a 35-year prison term for crimes related to the 1998 sexual assault and strangulation; he'll face a new sentencing in the murder.

The appellate judges' protest should reverberate in the halls of justice: If the death penalty is to remain the law of the land, it must be applied only under scrupulously fair and high standards.

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