FEWER PEOPLE are being sentenced to die.
Fewer people are dying at the hands of the state.
Fewer states are in the business of killing criminals.
Has America lost its appetite for state-sponsored execution? The numbers may not support that conclusion, but the decrease in people sentenced to death in 2004 represents the sixth consecutive annual decline. Something's afoot. The 125 death sentences issued last year were 19 fewer than in 2003, the lowest since the U.S. Supreme Court reintroduced capital punishment in 1976.
The reasons for the decline vary. Proponents of capital punishment attribute it to the Supreme Court's narrowing of eligible defendants. Opponents point to DNA exonerations -- 117 since 1996 -- and other high-profile cases of wrongful convictions. Whatever the reason, the decline in death sentences, as reported by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, should give judges and juries pause. They underscore the fallibility of the criminal justice system. And they reflect a growing recognition by the public of the immutability of capital punishment in the face of those failings.
Maryland has followed the national trend: Death sentences in the past decade have fallen from seven to one last year. But ours is a flawed system -- who gets the death penalty varies by race and geography. Despite those findings from a 2003 University of Maryland study, the death penalty machinery grinds on. A June hearing before the Maryland Court of Appeals presents the next challenge to the state's biased system. That's when the court takes up the appeals of two death-row inmates based on the findings of the state-funded UM review.
The discretion allowed Maryland prosecutors in seeking the death penalty has resulted in unintended consequences. For example, a convicted murderer-rapist in Baltimore is less likely to face the death penalty than if he committed the crime in Towson. The variances in the use of the death penalty, as identified in the UM study, lead to a disturbing conclusion: Capital punishment in Maryland isn't necessarily reserved for the worst offender or the worst crime.
Death penalty laws are under scrutiny across the country. New York legislators last month refused to reinstate capital punishment in the Empire State. In New Jersey, a court has ordered the state to explain its use of lethal injection. A provision of Kansas' death penalty has been found unconstitutional by a state appellate court.
In the absence of a promised review by Maryland's lieutenant governor -- an opponent of the death penalty -- and state legislators' refusal to consider the impact of the UM study, the state's high court must address the disparities documented in the voluminous UM report.
Until then, jurors deciding a capital case should follow the lead of the jury that sentenced an accomplice in the 2004 ambush-murder of Baltimore police Detective Thomas Gary Newman. It decided that a sentence of life without parole was a fate worse than death.