Balto. Co. capital sentences on decline

Set of factors cited for drop mirroring nationwide trend

April 24, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

Throughout Maryland's legal community, Baltimore County is known as the capital punishment capital of the state, sending more men to death row and seeking the death penalty more often than any other jurisdiction in the state.

That reputation has sparked scrutiny in the weeks leading up to the last two state executions -- both for Baltimore County killings -- and has earned the county a mention in national death penalty reports and studies.

But one aspect of Baltimore County's death penalty practices has gone largely unnoticed: It has been six years since prosecutors have won a death sentence that is still standing.

Even that case is in limbo: Maryland's highest court is considering whether to uphold a judge's decision last year to grant convicted killer Lawrence M. Borchardt Sr. a new sentencing hearing. Taking Borchardt out of the mix, it has been nearly 12 years since Baltimore County's last standing death sentence was imposed.

Legal experts as well as advocates and opponents of capital punishment say that Baltimore County's decline in death sentences mirrors a national decrease that is variously attributed to fewer homicides nationwide, the addition of life without parole as a sentencing option in most states and the hesitancy of jurors to impose the ultimate sanction in the wake of highly publicized DNA exonerations of death row inmates.

Even Harris County, Texas -- which typically accounts for more death sentences each year than any jurisdiction in the country -- sent only two people to death row last year.

"Baltimore County is sort of the Harris County of Maryland," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "I think Maryland has been part of that same national phenomenon."

In 2002, researchers from Columbia, Rutgers and New York universities ranked Baltimore County second among large counties nationwide in the rate at which convicted murderers are sentenced to death.

A year later, a state-funded University of Maryland death penalty study found racial and geographic disparities in the state's use of capital punishment, including that Baltimore County prosecutors sought death sentences more often than others in Maryland.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor has a well-known policy of seeking the death penalty in nearly every eligible case. Under Maryland law, prosecutors generally can seek death sentences for a convicted killer -- not an accomplice -- in cases with a so-called aggravating factor, such as the killing of a police officer or multiple victims, a killing by a prisoner, or a killing committed during a robbery, carjacking, kidnapping or rape.

O'Connor maintains two exceptions: She does not seek death in eligible cases if the victim's relatives are not willing to endure the lengthy appeals process typical of death penalty cases or if prosecutors must rely on the testimony of a co-defendant.

County prosecutors sought death sentences in 99 of the 152 death-eligible cases handled between August 1978, when Maryland's death penalty law took effect, and December 1999, according to the University of Maryland study. Stephen Bailey, one of O'Connor's deputies, says they sought death in 81 cases, attributing the difference to the number of cases that were retried and that researchers counted as separate cases.

But since May 2000, when Borchardt was sentenced to death, none of the dozen murder cases in which Baltimore County prosecutors sought death has resulted in a death sentence that has withstood legal challenges, and the governor commuted one death sentence.

Three men received life sentences from judges who declined to impose the death sentences that prosecutors requested. Eight men and one woman ended up with life sentences after pleading guilty before trial or as a result of prosecutors' dropping their pursuit of the death penalty after an appeals court overturned an earlier death sentence.

In at least three-quarters of those dozen cases in which death sentences were not imposed, prosecutors or judges attributed their decision, in part, to the toll that the appeals process in capital cases takes on victims' families.

"People talk about cruel and unusual punishment regarding the death penalty. If there is anything that's cruel and unusual, it is cruel and unusual to make people wait 20-some years for closure," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz, who decided twice in 2003 to sentence convicted killers to life in prison rather than impose death sentences.

"That's cruel," he added. "Cruel to the victim's family, who already has been victimized. And I imagine it's cruel to the defendant's family, who have to go through the ups and the downs of all those appeals."

Increasingly, Baltimore County prosecutors are accepting offers from defendants in death penalty cases to enter guilty pleas in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without parole -- a sentencing option added by the General Assembly in 1987.

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