No more tinkering with the machinery of death?

January 28, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

The State House dome - elegant, nautical and historic - might also conjure a less lofty image: the lid on a pressure cooker.

Members of the General Assembly's Democratic majority are so happy to be back to Democratic rule in Annapolis that they can hardly get the smiles off their faces.

They're happy to delay anything that might be contentious while their party's new governor, Martin O'Malley, collects himself.

And happy to let the pressure build.

Maryland needs comprehensive tax reform, legislation that could easily devour the time and energy of an entire 90-day session. Mr. O'Malley needs time to adjust and prepare his approach to that consuming task. Meanwhile, the financial and political pressure builds.

Still, this year may be a vacation from controversy.

Then again, there's the proposed ban on capital punishment. There's a bill, subjected to the pressure cooker for many years, that might be ready for action.

Next year sounds like a traffic jam, or perhaps a six-car interstate pileup, so this might be the year to act. Advocates of a ban see a more favorable atmosphere.

The climate has changed in the nation - and in Maryland.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. supported the death penalty. Governor O'Malley does not. He has said he will do his duty under current law - but only because it's his duty.

Last week, as a repeal bill was introduced, he said, "I would like to see us evolve to a point where we all understand that the death penalty does not deter violent crimes, does not save lives, and in fact we spend a whole lot of money prosecuting the death penalty when instead we could be preventing crime and saving lives by putting those dollars on other things that actually do work."

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Democrat and sponsor of the bill, quoted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who said in frustration, finally: "From this day forward, I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death." The mechanism could not be fixed, could not be made to work fairly or justly or even, as matters have evolved, medically. Authorities in Maryland are faced, once again, with promulgating regulations on lethal injection that will pass constitutional muster. Many other states are about to conclude, as Justice Blackmun did, that the death penalty cannot be fixed.

Not everyone agrees with a ban, of course, and not everyone will be diverted from opposition by the bill's substitution of life without parole. The less extreme penalty was not available in Maryland when the death penalty was reinstituted in 1978, but according to recent polls, many Marylanders would support that option. As a result, more votes will be available for a ban.

Of course, some believe the law does not need changing. Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, insisted the penalty has its place in the system. "I think there are individuals [for whom] the death penalty needs to happen because of the nature of what they've been involved in and what the future would hold for them," she said. DNA testing and attention to discrepancies in sentencing, she said, can help to sort out who deserves death and who does not.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and another sponsor of the bill, said she wishes opponents were right. "I wish it were a deterrent ... I'm a public defender, and every day I wonder, `Why did you do this?' They don't know. Defendants don't know. They do not rationalize [by saying to themselves], `I might actually be exposed to the death penalty.'"

Bill proponents will once again urge attention to the possibility of error. One of them was Walter Lomax, who was released last December after serving 39 years of a life sentence for a murder he didn't commit. "My story is that I survived, but how many other people didn't survive? At least, if they are alive, they have the opportunity to regain their freedom such as I did," Mr. Lomax said.

And finally, the mother of a murder victim, Vicki Schieber of Montgomery County, said the death penalty brings no closure and no solace - two of its alleged benefits.

"Marylanders," she said, "are ready to move beyond vague sentiments about being tough on crime and look closely at what actions could truly prevent violence and actually help victims heal in its aftermath."

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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