Death penalty has cost

Circumstances, resources guide Baltimore's policy

September 03, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has been consistent about what she says it takes for her to seek a criminal's death, something she has done just twice in her 11 years on the job.

"It should be a case that is just so shocking to the conscience that it cries out for the death penalty," she said four years ago. Only a week ago, she reiterated that same point: "It should be reserved for those individuals who commit the most heinous crimes."

But two recent Baltimore cases involving multiple murders are prompting some to ask: If not the death penalty now, then when?

Raymont Hopewell pleaded guilty last month to raping and asphyxiating three women, ages 60, 78 and 88. He strangled another 78-year-old woman with his bare hands. He robbed and beat to death an 82-year-old deaf man. At least five other elderly victims also suffered his savage attentions in a five-year span.

Days before Hopewell's plea, Policarpio Espinoza and Adan Canela were found guilty of killing three children, ages 8, 9 and 10, whose throats had been slashed so deeply that they were almost decapitated.

In neither of those cases - notorious for their brutality and for the vulnerability of the victims - did Jessamy seek the death penalty. The three men will be sentenced this month, likely to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"He's a mass murderer, and he got a plea deal," Ivan Wingfield says of Hopewell, his mother's killer. "This just shows that there is no death penalty in Baltimore. It's not fair."

In her 16 years as a defense attorney, Margaret A. Mead represented one man for whom Jessamy thought death was appropriate and many others for whom death never arose as a possibility, though their crimes qualified.

"It has almost been an unwritten policy not to go for the death penalty," she says.

Jessamy has not categorically ruled out capital punishment. In 1998, she pursued it for Joseph R. Metheny, a man who claimed to have killed 10 people, dismembering and assaulting the bodies of his victims. She sought it again in 2004 for a man who shot to death Detective Thomas G. Newman.

"We are seeking justice," Jessamy said. "There are many cases with heinous facts, but there's more to consider."

Interviews with Jessamy and others suggest that her rare use of the death penalty is a result of a combination of considerations: resources, politics, policy and specific circumstances in some of the cases.

Jessamy's approach is not a sharp departure from that of her most recent predecessors in the Baltimore state's attorney's office. Since the death penalty's reinstatement in 1978, city prosecutors have sought to use it only about 18 times in the thousands of homicide cases that have come across their desks, according to veteran city homicide prosecutors. No statistics are kept.

In the 1980s, Kurt L. Schmoke only occasionally pursued the death penalty, and Stuart O. Simms, who flatly opposes it, even less so. Simms sought the death penalty three times. Jessamy, though she says she is not philosophically opposed to capital punishment, has trimmed its use further.

Her record is particularly conspicuous because of adjoining Baltimore County, where State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor maintains a policy of seeking death in nearly every case that legally qualifies. Right now, there are seven active death-penalty cases - more than the city has seen overall in the past two decades.

A matter of money

Some say budget problems are the biggest obstacle to more death penalty cases in the city. As Donald J. Giblin, a veteran city homicide prosecutor, says, "I don't have a moral problem with the death penalty; I have a resource problem with it."

Death penalty proceedings stretch out over the years and are hugely expensive, with the trial and penalty phases costing at least $500,000, prosecutors estimate. And that doesn't take into account what can become decades of appeals.

Jessamy says an informal office analysis showed that about 10 percent to 15 percent of 200 or so city homicide cases that come across prosecutors' desks each year qualify for the death penalty under state law.

That translates to more than 500 possible capital cases since 1978. Jessamy's defenders say she couldn't possibly seek capital punishment in all of the crimes that are eligible.

"The system would crash," says Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory, a former assistant state's attorney and the city's most experienced death penalty prosecutor.

Even a death penalty conviction means long years of appeals with no guarantee that a killer will be executed in the end.

"Most of the time," Jessamy says, "the death penalty doesn't give you closure."

She often refers to the case of John Booth-El, the only Baltimore man on death row, when she speaks to the families of homicide victims who favor the death penalty.

"Twenty-three years, and still this matter is pending. They need to know that," she says.

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