Civiletti heads Md. panel on death penalty

Issues to be examined include racial disparities, DNA evidence

July 11, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

Benjamin R. Civiletti, a prominent Baltimore lawyer and former U.S. attorney general who once called for a national moratorium on capital punishment, will head a state commission studying the death penalty in Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced yesterday.

The commission begins its deliberations as O'Malley, a staunch death-penalty opponent, has moved toward ending Maryland's de facto moratorium on executions by ordering the drafting of procedures for the use of lethal injection.

O'Malley, a Democrat, made that decision on the advice of legal counsel after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kentucky's use of lethal injection protocols that are virtually identical to Maryland's.

Established this year by the General Assembly, the commission is charged with examining a number of issues, including disparities in the application of the death penalty, the cost differential between litigating prolonged capital punishment cases and life imprisonment, and the impact of DNA evidence.

O'Malley appointed 13 of the 23 commission members, and death- penalty proponents had raised concerns that the governor would stack the panel with like-minded opponents.

Civiletti, who was attorney general during the Carter administration and now focuses on commercial litigation and white-collar crime, said he has not represented anyone charged with a capital offense. He declined to share his personal opinion on the subject yesterday.

"I come in with views, but they are not fixed views," Civiletti said. "I am anxious to learn as much as I can in such a short period of time."

A decade ago, Civiletti joined the American Bar Association in supporting a halt in the use of the death penalty. In an opinion piece published in The Sun and other newspapers, Civiletti said he was concerned about cases in which defendants had inadequate counsel and studies showing that racial bias and poverty played too great a role in determining who is sentenced to death.

"I am not opposed to capital punishment," Civiletti wrote at the time. "But the serious flaws in our capital punishment justice system have not been addressed."

The commission must submit a final report on its findings and recommendations by Dec. 15.

Civiletti is one of the highest paid lawyers in the country, reportedly charging $1,000 an hour, and his experience includes arguing before the International Court of Justice at The Hague on behalf of American captives in Iran during the hostage crisis 30 years ago.

O'Malley, who with House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller jointly selected Civiletti, noted the lawyer's "integrity and long history of public service" as qualities making him right for the job.

Other commission members include Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino; Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, a former death-row inmate who was exonerated through DNA evidence; Rabbi Mark G. Loeb and Bishop Denis J. Madden; and Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, who testified at a legislative hearing this year against a death-penalty repeal that failed and against the creation of the commission.

Three family members of murder victims were appointed to the commission, including Rick N. Prothero, whose brother was killed during a jewelry store robbery in 2000 in Pikesville. The brother, Baltimore County police Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero, was working as an off-duty security guard when he was shot. A year later, Richard Antonio Moore pleaded guilty in the case and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, avoiding a possible death sentence.

Prosecutors said then that despite a strong case, they agreed to a plea agreement because Maryland's appeals process stretches on so long that capital punishment is "a sentence that only exists on paper."

At the time, Rick Prothero said of the plea bargain that "there's a sense of relief, but there's no real satisfaction." Yesterday, when asked about his views on capital punishment, Prothero said: "I was in favor of the death penalty in my brother's case."

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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