Capital punishment holds shaky ground

March 16, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Death penalty stands on ever shakier ground

Maybe next time, the phone will ring for Alex X. Mooney and it will be the pope rather than a mere cardinal. Maybe the governor will perform the Irish music live rather than just have it playing in the background in his office when Mooney comes a-calling. Maybe the former lieutenant governor and fellow Republican will linger even longer over dessert the next time he has a three-hour dinner with the state senator from Frederick.

In the end, the religious, governmental and party wooing failed to persuade Mooney to support a bill repealing the death penalty in Maryland - his vote against it in committee yesterday effectively killed the measure for this session.

Mooney, a devout Catholic, had been wavering and doing a very public Hamlet on the subject, drawing the attention of such high-powered capital punishment opponents as Cardinal William H. Keeler, Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. (Talk about strange bedfellows - doesn't this seem like the set up for a joke: A Roman Catholic cardinal, a Democratic governor and a Republican former seminarian walk into a legislative battle ... )

But advocates of a repeal feel there's something that ultimately may be persuasive: time.

Slowly, support for the death penalty is eroding - and on multiple fronts. Some oppose it based on the disproportionate number of African-Americans who are executed. And some are troubled by cases uncovered by such groups as the Innocence Project, which found numerous death-row inmates exonerated by DNA evidence. And still others reject the argument that capital punishment serves as a deterrent, citing stories such as one in The New York Times in 2000 showing that states with the death penalty often had higher murder rates than those without it.

And finally, in Maryland and other states, some are increasingly disturbed by the most common form of execution, lethal injection, using cases like the one of the Florida inmate who took more than a half-hour to die as examples of why it is a cruel punishment. In fact, in Maryland, there is an unofficial moratorium on executions until the legislature reviews lethal injection procedures.

As time goes on, I think people are realizing the wisdom of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who famously decided to stop "tinkering with the machinery of death." For all the "tinkering" with the death penalty over the years, the system of deciding who lives and who dies, and how, remains flawed.

"A human justice system is never going to be infallible," as Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery Democrat, said during the committee's discussions. He cited forensics expert Joseph Kopera, who has testified in numerous criminal trials but recently was discovered to have lied about his credentials. Kopera subsequently killed himself.

Luckily, the Senate didn't tinker, despite attempts by two Judicial Proceedings Committee members to amend the original bill by Sen. Lisa Gladden, and just put the issue to rest - for now.

Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, held her ground for an all-or-nothing approach, refusing to support Mooney's amendment to allow the death penalty for inmates who kill while in prison.

Indeed, you're either for executions or you're not, and why should prison killers be put to death and not, say, cop killers or child killers or nun killers?

Another amendment, from Raskin, seeking to keep the bill alive by calling for a commission to study the death penalty issue, also failed. "What else," Sen. James Brochin said, "is there to look at?"

Indeed, it's time to vote up or down. And maybe it's time for the issue to leave the legislature - "There's no will on the Senate floor to repeal the death penalty," even Gladden conceded. Maybe, as Senate President Mike Miller broached in an interview yesterday, it's time to put the issue up to a referendum of the voters. He generally doesn't favor such measures - Miller calls them an "abrogation" of the legislature's responsibilities - but he doesn't see another way around the stalemate.

Increasingly, polls both in Maryland and nationwide show that support for capital punishment is diminishing, particularly when the alternative of life without parole is offered. While a majority of voters in the state still favor capital punishment, according to a poll by a group opposed to it, a greater percentage say that life without parole is an acceptable alternative.

After yesterday's vote, an emotional Kirk Bloodsworth - the Eastern Shore man who was saved from execution when DNA evidence found he did not commit the murder for which he was on death row - was among the advocates who vowed to fight on.

"I'm very disappointed, but I'm coming back," Bloodsworth said. "As long as I'm living and breathing, I'm coming back."

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