Death penalty review

Our view: If it can't be administered fairly, repeal the law

August 01, 2008

No criminal justice issue weighs more heavily on the consciences of judges, juries and corrections officials than the responsibility for imposing the ultimate penalty on defendants in capital cases. This week, a commission appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley opened hearings on whether Maryland's death penalty law meets basic standards of fairness and freedom from bias.

The commission will be able to draw on a large body of evidence suggesting the current system is deeply flawed. Many studies have demonstrated glaring disparities in the severity of sentences handed down to defendants depending on their race and the race of their victims. This week, for example, law professor David C. Baldus told the panel that none of the five convicted killers executed in Maryland since 1978, or the five currently on death row, was sentenced to death for killing a black person. His testimony echoed a 2003 study in Maryland that found defendants accused of killing whites were three times more likely to receive death sentences than those who killed non-whites. Some of the researchers who uncovered these statistics started out believing that racial disparities in sentencing could be eliminated by changes in the law. But many of them eventually concluded the system can never render equal justice.

Last year, a similar commission in New Jersey found that its death penalty didn't deter crime, was arbitrarily applied and protected the public no better than sentences of life without parole. Maryland's panel must decide whether officials here can have confidence in the fairness of the state's death penalty sentences. They may find that no amount of tinkering will make capital punishment accord with the principle of equal justice. In that case, they should call on the General Assembly to abolish it and replace it with life without parole, and Mr. O'Malley should help make the case. Whether lawmakers would be persuaded to do so remains to be seen. But at least they wouldn't be able to claim they didn't know what the right thing to do was.

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