A needed debate

Our view: Legislators should take up Maryland's death penalty law in the next session

it's time to call the question on state-sanctioned execution

November 14, 2008

Maryland's death penalty law violates the most basic standards of fairness and decency. That's the conclusion of a state commission on capital punishment, and it should prompt citizens to insist that lawmakers bring the issue to a vote when they convene in Annapolis next year.

The panel found, among other things, that the death penalty does not deter crime and is arbitrary and capricious, biased against African-Americans and fraught with risk for executing innocent people. During public hearings, the commissioners heard from dozens of witnesses and reviewed a large body of evidence pointing to the inescapable fact that the state's death penalty law is so deeply flawed that no amount of tinkering is likely to bring it into accord with the principals of equal justice.

Opponents of capital punishment, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, have called on legislators to repeal the law; the punishment exacted by a life without parole sentence shouldn't be underestimated. The House of Delegates has indicated some willingness to consider such a measure. But previous bills to abolish the death penalty have been bottled up in the state Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, preventing an up or down vote.

This year, lawmakers must find a way to break the legislative logjam. Senate supporters of the death penalty have a right and duty to vote against repealing it, and no doubt they will. But it is unacceptable for them to use the Senate's arcane rules to block the entire legislature from considering a matter of such urgency. Their colleagues should persevere in demanding they let the bill out of committee for a full floor vote. Although a death penalty supporter, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller could help make this happen.

The state sends a disturbing message when it uses its power to enforce a policy that is demonstrably discriminatory and ineffective in practice. The potential for error inherent in Maryland's death penalty law undermines public confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system and erodes respect for the law. Those are reasons enough to abolish the death penalty. There's still no guarantee lawmakers would do so even if given the opportunity. But at least then citizens would know where their elected representatives stood on the issue.

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