End the death penalty

January 28, 2007

After years of trying to convince any lawmaker who would listen that Maryland's death penalty should be repealed, advocates have accumulated persuasive evidence to abolish the practice. They shouldn't be ignored any longer.

Last week, state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg and 54 other lawmakers introduced legislation that would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. New to the debate is the experience of a New Jersey commission of 13 citizens - including lawyers, victims' advocates and law enforcement leaders - that spent six months last year studying that state's death penalty law and its ramifications.

Here, in part, is what they found: The death penalty doesn't deter crime, an "unevenness" exists in how counties there choose death penalty cases, and a sentence of life without parole sufficiently protects the public. Their overriding conclusion: Abolish the death penalty in favor of life without parole.

In Maryland, application of the death penalty is racially biased - resulting in a disproportionate number of inmates on death row for killing white victims as opposed to black victims - and inherently inequitable, because disadvantaged defendants do not have access to the same level of legal representation as their more affluent counterparts. That is, of course, simply the way of the world; however, when the state seeks to take someone's life, such inequity ought not to be tolerated.

Since 1973, some 123 defendants convicted and sentenced to death in the United States have been acquitted through retrials, have had their charges dropped or have been pardoned based on new evidence. DNA testing was a key factor in 14 releases, including that of Maryland's Kirk Bloodsworth.

The technology not only has helped free men who were wrongly convicted, it also has exposed the failings of a criminal justice system that ignored incompetence, mistakes and malfeasance. We will probably never know how many innocent prisoners have been executed.

There are also solid practical reasons to eliminate the possibility of the death penalty. States spend an enormous amount of money on death penalty cases, money that could be used to better protect the public's safety. Maryland's Office of the Public Defender, which represents many capital defendants, estimates the expense to be $2 million a year per case.

What's more, the use of lethal injection as a safe, humane form of execution has come under increasing legal attack. Requests to have board-certified surgeons, anesthesiologists and registered nurse-anesthetists assist in the death chamber won't resolve the problem because participating in an execution violates the professions' ethical codes.

Across the country, the number of people sentenced to death has been declining since the 1990s, an indication of the public's growing ambivalence about the death penalty. Illinois and New Jersey have moratoriums; New York's death penalty law was ruled unconstitutional in 2004. Maryland executions were put on hold last month after the Court of Appeals found a technical problem with the state's execution protocols.

But fixing that glitch won't resolve the essential concerns. Maryland lawmakers should approve the Gladden-Rosenberg bill. Gov. Martin O'Malley has indicated he would sign the measure, thus ensuring an end to state executions.

Make no mistake: Eliminating the death penalty neither minimizes the gravity of heinous crimes nor coddles the criminals who commit them. By replacing death with life behind bars without the possibility of parole, the General Assembly will ensure that justice in this state is as sure, fair and equitable as the law can possibly make it.

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