Panel's death penalty backers still in the minority

November 21, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

Two more members of a state commission reviewing capital punishment indicated yesterday that they will recommend keeping the death penalty in Maryland, but a majority of panelists still support abolishing the practice.

At a meeting last night in Annapolis, a representative of Attorney General Douglas M. Gansler joined the minority that backs keeping the death penalty, slimming the abolitionists' margin to 13-8 on the 23-member commission. Also, Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, a panelist who did not attend yesterday's meeting, told The Baltimore Sun she was leaning toward voting to retain capital punishment. Gary Maynard, secretary of Maryland's Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services, is also on the commission but is remaining neutral.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, a leading death penalty advocate on the panel, said he hoped the enlarged minority would decrease the chances of a death penalty repeal by lawmakers. "Any more votes we pick up makes [a repeal movement] that much more challenged," Shellenberger said. "Hopefully, people will read the minority report and see that there's a lot of logic to it, whether you're a citizen or a citizen legislator."

In an interview, Gansler, a Democrat, said that he did not believe lawmakers would be greatly influenced by the recommendations of a commission and that he expects the General Assembly to retain the practice."This commission was stacked from the beginning to come out with findings against the death penalty," said Gansler, a former chief prosecutor in Montgomery County. He said he supports the death penalty if it is handled in a "fair, race-neutral, socioeconomic-neutral way."

The commission was established this year by the legislature amid nationwide scrutiny of capital punishment because of high-profile exonerations of wrongly convicted death-row inmates. Last week, a majority voted to recommend abolishing the death penalty, finding that it could lead to the execution of innocent people and that it was tainted by racial bias, among other flaws.

Yesterday, at the commission's final gathering, panelist Oliver Smith indicated he was considering switching his vote and supporting a ban on executions. Smith's son, a Washington police officer, was killed in a 1997 attempted robbery.

"He's going to be in favor [of abolition]," said Benjamin R. Civiletti, a U.S. attorney general under President Carter and the commission's chairman, of Smith. "I can feel it in my heart."

The commission's final report is due to the legislature next month.

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