Law enforcers oppose death penalty

Senate panel's vote tomorrow may seal measure's fate this year

General Assembly

March 14, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Supporters of repealing the death penalty gathered corrections officials, prosecutors and police chiefs in Annapolis yesterday to argue that the criminal justice system is broken beyond repair and that capital punishment cannot be fairly or reliably applied.

"It is a human system, and because it is fallible and because it is human, it makes mistakes," said Matthew Campbell, a former deputy state's attorney for Montgomery and Howard counties. "Execution makes those mistakes irreversible."

Proponents of a repeal are gearing up for an expected Senate committee vote tomorrow that could determine the fate of the measure this year. The bill, sponsored by Baltimore Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, would replace the death penalty with life without parole.

Opponents of Gladden's bill have said, among other arguments, that the punishment should be maintained for violent offenders who kill again behind bars.

Gladden said yesterday that she would withdraw the bill before allowing it to be amended in any way, arguing that the only legally and ethically acceptable proposal is a full repeal.

"I am not going to be considering any amendments at this point," Gladden said in an interview. "You can't be a little bit pregnant. The definition of repeal is `No killing.' And so you can't have exceptions for different kinds of victims. This is a fundamental question: What does it mean as a government? How do we punish people?"

Gov. Martin O'Malley testified in favor of repeal last month, arguing that the penalty is unjust and costly.

The 11-member Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee vote could swing on the support of Sen. Alex X. Mooney of Frederick. A conservative Republican and a Catholic, Mooney remains undecided but has said he might back a repeal bill that includes exemptions for the killing of police and corrections officers and prison officials.

Mooney sat quietly in the audience during the Annapolis news conference hosted by Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. Though he left before the end, he listened as several of the half-dozen former prison and law enforcement officials represented the views of about 50 colleagues who signed a public statement urging repeal.

Supporters include Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm; Calvin A. Lightfoot, former secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services; Kurt L. Schmoke, a former state's attorney and Baltimore mayor; and Edward Burns, a retired Baltimore police detective who writes for HBO's The Wire."

Schmoke pursued the death penalty as a state's attorney but has since called for an end to capital punishment in Maryland.

Gary J. Hilton, former warden of the Trenton State Prison in New Jersey, said that he has never had a moral objection to the death penalty and was at one time "a vigorous supporter." But he said he has come to believe that the money would be better spent on improving prison equipment and facilities and on a well-trained staff. He said life without parole is the toughest punishment.

"Nothing in this world could be more horrible than growing old and dying in jail," Hilton said.

Officials argued yesterday that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. They also said there's too much chance of sentencing an innocent person to death.

"The risk of a mistake in administering the death penalty is frightening," said Patrick V. Murphy, former police commissioner of Detroit, Washington and New York.

The Senate committee vote could mark the end of the road for the repeal this session, even though the same bill is being considered by the House Judiciary Committee. Several lawmakers have said that the Senate is a tougher hurdle for repeal supporters and that Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House committee, might not bring the proposal to a vote if it is defeated in the Senate.

The Maryland Court of Appeals effectively halted executions in December after judges ruled that the state's lethal injection procedures had to be reviewed by the General Assembly. Lawmakers are weighing whether to repeal the punishment or pass legislation that exempts them from such regulations. The House Judiciary Committee has voted against a bill that would do the latter.

The moratorium will remain in place if lawmakers fail to act this year on either proposal.

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