1,000 and counting

December 04, 2005

Barring a last-minute reprieve, Wesley Eugene Baker will be executed this week for the murder of Jane Tyson, a not-yet-50 grandmother shot to death in a shopping mall parking lot in front of her two young grandchildren. He will become Maryland's latest enrollee in a club that now totals 1,000 - inmates who have been executed since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. He won't be the last to die, because capital punishment remains a lawful enterprise here, despite the apparent inequities in its execution and the growing disquiet over its use.

Across the country, the death penalty remains a viable sentence in 38 states even as the integrity of the criminal justice system on which it depends has been discredited. Poor lawyering, police-coerced confessions, evidence withheld, mistaken witnesses or worse offer reasons aplenty to revoke the death penalty. The use of DNA technology vastly improved the quality of criminal evidence and, in turn, revealed just how imperfect our system is.

As DNA evidence has upended more criminal convictions and freed more than 100 prisoners from death rows, fewer judges and juries have imposed death sentences. The import of their actions is this: An imperfect system argues against an irrevocable sentence. Consider the case of convicted murderer Ruben Cantu. Texas, the leading state executioner, may have in fact executed an innocent man when it killed Mr. Cantu in 1993. A witness last month recanted the testimony that led to the conviction of Mr. Cantu, who protested his innocence until his last breath.

The gravity of the death penalty is such that defendants must receive every opportunity to acquit themselves of this punishment. And yet the length of capital appeals offers another reason to forgo the death penalty - these cases consume millions of taxpayer dollars that greatly exceed the cost of imprisoning a death-eligible inmate for life. A study in New Jersey found that the state has spent $253 million on capital cases since 1982 and has yet to execute a single individual. Justice in this instance is rarely swift. A decade's worth of appeals and sentence reversals in the case of convicted murderer Darris A. Ware was too much for his victims' families - they pressed Anne Arundel prosecutors last year to seek life without parole for the killer. Closure was what they wanted.

On Friday, a North Carolina man became the 1,000th person to be executed in the United States since 1976. As many Americans wrestled with that grievous notoriety, a jury in Florida was recommending death for a convicted child rapist. As we said at the outset, Maryland is poised to execute Mr. Baker 14 years after a Harford County jury convicted him. There is no one reason to dispense with this ghastly form of punishment.

There are many reasons, too many to ignore.

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