Voices against death penalty

Victims' relatives, bishops speak against state executions

August 20, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

A group of relatives of murder victims called on state lawmakers yesterday to repeal the death penalty, complaining that the long appeals process that accompanies capital murder prosecutions drags families through painful delays without delivering the justice that the system initially promises.

Standing with their arms around each other's shoulders and holding photos of their loved ones, 10 people delivered a letter signed by dozens more like them to the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which held the third of its four scheduled hearings yesterday in Annapolis. The panel is examining 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.

Like many others who spoke at yesterday's five-hour hearing, the victims' family members asked the commission to recommend the replacement of the death penalty with a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure. Life without parole, which begins immediately, is both of these; the death penalty is neither," Lisa Delity, a schoolteacher from Bowie, told the commission, reading from the letter signed by 49 Marylanders who have lost relatives to murder. "Capital punishment drags victims' loved ones through an agonizing and lengthy process, holding out the promise of one punishment in the beginning and often resulting in a life sentence in the end anyway."

Emphasizing that their request was based not on universal opposition to capital punishment but out of concern that Maryland's use of the ultimate punishment does more harm than good, the letter writers added, "Though we share different perspectives on the death penalty, every one of us agrees that Maryland's capital punishment system doesn't work for victims' families, and that our state is better off without it."

Commission members also heard yesterday from bishops representing the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and United Methodist churches of Maryland, from a researcher who has studied the cost of the state's death penalty and from a prosecutor and two former prosecutors, all three of whom have handled capital cases but who have come to very different conclusions about its effectiveness.

The three church leaders - Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, Bishop Eugene T. Sutton of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and Bishop John Schol of the United Methodist Church of Maryland - spoke in favor of the abolishment of capital punishment, arguing that state executions do nothing to curb the violence that has poisoned so many communities in the state.

"How, in the end, does killing its citizens help the state to build the nonviolent, just and civil society that we all desire for ourselves and our children?" Sutton said. He later added, "We are not going to kill our way out of a culture that is awash in violence."

Established this year by the state legislature, the 23-member commission must submit a final report on its findings and recommendations by Dec. 15. Led by Benjamin R. Civiletti, a former U.S. attorney general who served under President Jimmy Carter, the commission includes a police chief, a former death row inmate who was exonerated by DNA evidence, a rabbi, a bishop, three family members of murder victims, several legislators and a county prosecutor who has handled capital cases and made the decision to seek the death penalty in others.

Maryland has had an effective ban on use of its death chamber since December 2006, when the state's highest court ruled that the execution protocols that detail the steps to put a condemned prisoner to death were improperly developed without legislative oversight or public input.

In May, Gov. Martin O'Malley took the first step toward ending that moratorium, ordering the drafting of new procedures for executing inmates by lethal injection. The governor, who opposes capital punishment, held off ordering new protocols to give lawmakers another chance to consider repealing the death penalty. But a bill to replace capital punishment with life without parole stalled this spring in a Senate committee for a second year in a row.

In its place, lawmakers established the commission.

In December, New Jersey became the first state in decades to abolish the death penalty after a similar commission studied the issue there.

A month after the New Jersey repeal, a Sun poll found that a majority of Maryland voters did not support enacting similar legislation. Fifty-seven percent said they want the death penalty to remain legal, while 33 percent said they would ban it. About 10 percent of likely voters polled said they were not sure.

A poll conducted in 2005 for the Maryland Catholic Conference that specifically asked about life without parole found that 63 percent of registered voters thought that sentence was an acceptable substitute for the death penalty.

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