Flawed 'compromise'

Our view: Senators are mistaken if they think the problems with Maryland's death penalty can be resolved through half-measures like the one passed yesterday

March 05, 2009

Many no doubt will be tempted to see the Maryland Senate's vote yesterday to restrict rather than abolish the state's death penalty law as a small but significant step forward, despite the fact that the reasons for ending capital punishment outright remain as compelling as ever.

Those reasons, outlined in a report of the state commission on capital punishment appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley last year, include the death penalty's inherent unfairness and the fact that it does not deter crime, is far more costly to apply than a sentence of life without parole and is fraught with risk for executing innocent people. The panel described a death penalty law so broken and prone to injustice that no amount of tinkering around the edges was likely to fix it.

Yet that appears to be the course Maryland is embarked on as a result of yesterday's Senate vote. The bill was introduced with strong backing from Mr. O'Malley, a longtime death penalty opponent, but it emerged from the chamber with crippling amendments that, while narrowing the circumstances under which the death penalty can be applied, do not abolish it. One amendment would rule out the death penalty in murder cases where the only evidence is eyewitness testimony; the other would allow capital punishment only in cases where there is DNA evidence. Neither directly addresses the systemic injustices in the death penalty law pointed out by the Civiletti commission. That's the "compromise" that will now go to the House of Delegates, where lawmakers will either approve it as written or risk seeing it defeated when it returns to the Senate for final passage.

This is far from a desirable resolution to the matter. Yet it's also how democracy works, and the messy political compromises it often produces. This week was the first time in 30 years the full Senate debated the state's death penalty law; we commend Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller for allowing that to happen despite his staunch support for capital punishment. We will also be watching closely to see whether this amended bill, if it passes, will actually result in fewer death penalty cases being brought by prosecutors, fewer dollars spent on the endless appeals they inspire and fewer inmates on death row who may be innocent of the crimes they were convicted of.

It also shouldn't take another 30 years for the General Assembly to revisit this issue; until the death penalty is abolished, the state will continue to send the disturbing message that Maryland remains wedded to a policy that is ineffective in practice, demonstrably discriminatory and a moral blight on the integrity of the law.

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