Death penalty isn't the justice I seek

November 07, 2006|By Bonnita Spikes

It was a moment of understanding that came in the midst of a heated argument among strangers in a courthouse hallway. The couple I was speaking with had likely been to the Maryland Court of Appeals more times than I. Her parents were murdered in their Baltimore home in 1983, and the man convicted of killing them still sits on death row.

That day, the court was hearing an appeal in another death case: Maryland's death penalty was being challenged based on disparities found in a state-commissioned University of Maryland study. The case being heard had implications for all on death row. The couple had waited more than two decades for an execution, and they were angry. The man had no patience for more appeals or for the death penalty opponents who had shown up that day.

I was surprised by my own candor. "My husband was murdered," I injected into the conversation that I had thus far only observed, "and I still oppose the death penalty."

His demeanor softened when I told him about my husband's death. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You're the only one in this building I will allow to talk to me about this. You can have an opinion. You've been there."

At that moment, I saw room for possibility. I realized I had the power to change people's minds, and I decided to intensify my work for the abolition of capital punishment.

As an Open Society Institute-Baltimore community fellow, I now spend my days meeting with death row inmates, their relatives, the families of murder victims and the police.

I know that my late husband, Michael, who was an innocent bystander in a 1994 convenience store shooting in New York City, would be proud of me because he, too, opposed the death penalty.

Like the man I encountered at the courthouse, most relatives of murder victims drop their guard when I tell them that I experienced the grief-driven impulse for revenge when the hospital curtain was pulled aside, revealing my husband's body with a bullet wound in the chest.

But Michael's killers were never found, and I eventually realized that my desire to see the murderers brought to justice was prolonging my pain. I know I was a basket case until I decided to "let go and let God," as they say. I also know that it is wrong to kill and, therefore, punishing a murderer with death is as wrong as the original crime.

My frequent meetings with Maryland's death row inmates have given me even more insight into the issue. To me, Jody Miles, Vernon Evans, John Booth-El and Heath W. Burch are real human beings, not just names of convicted murderers printed in the newspaper. They have told me how they are feeling as they sit on death row.

As an African-American woman, my opposition to capital punishment deepened when I learned how race infects who gets sentenced to life and who gets sentenced to death. Since 1923, the number of black men executed has consistently outpaced the number of whites by three to one. The murders of white Marylanders are more than twice as likely to bring death sentences, a disparity that only increases when the defendant is black. The vast majority of murder victims in our state are black, but all the men currently sitting on our death row were convicted of killing white people.

Maryland had a moratorium on all executions in 2002, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. lifted it when he took office in early 2003. Two executions have been carried out since then. I have sat with the mothers of both these executed men; their grief is no different than my own.

Public opinion seems to be running against Mr. Ehrlich on the death penalty. Polls conducted last year show 45 percent of Maryland's African-American voters flatly oppose executions under any circumstances. Among all state voters, 63 percent want to replace the death penalty with the sentence of life in prison without parole.

When I appeared recently on a conservative radio talk show, I could sense my arguments were being taken seriously, even by those who disagreed. The host told me, "You haven't changed my mind, but you've given me something to think about."

We may be moving toward ending the death penalty. We will all be better for it.

Bonnita Spikes is an Open Society Institute-Baltimore community fellow and also works with Maryland Citizens Against State Executions to raise awareness around capital punishment. Her e-mail is bonnitaspikes@mdcase.org.

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