Maryland's execution chamber (Baltimore Sun 2004 )
The first time John Booth-El was sentenced to die, Phyllis Bricker drove to the Northwest Baltimore home where he had tied up and fatally stabbed her parents. She looked at an empty window, she said, "as if to say, It's all over. We got you justice."
More than a quarter-century later, Booth-El is one of the longest-serving men on Maryland's small death row, and Bricker has grown weary of her battles, first with the court system and more recently with the state government.
"There has been no closure, no justice," she said, her voice rising as she jabs the notepad in which she has tracked court and legislative hearings over the years.
"We're still here, and now we're fighting the legislature. Nobody ever told us we'd have to do that."
Maryland is one of 35 states with a capital punishment law, has five men on death row and is prosecuting a half dozen new capital cases. But no one has been put to death in more than five years, and the slow writing and rewriting of execution protocols has imposed a de facto moratorium on capital punishment that appears unlikely to end anytime soon.
Last week, state prison officials told lawmakers they need more time to work on the protocols — a task that so far has spanned the entire administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley, a death penalty opponent. The latest hangup: One of the chemicals used in lethal injections is no longer available in the United States.
Death penalty opponents announced recently that they have found more legislative support than ever for repeal. Leaders in the General Assembly say the bill is not likely to pass this year, but a Senate made more liberal in last fall's election and a sympathetic governor have activists believing an end to capital punishment is on the horizon.
O'Malley said the shortage of the chemical sodium thiopental "underscores what a laborious and complicated and time-consuming, resource-wasting legal process goes into carrying out the death penalty."
"Our dollars are better spent on crime-fighting measures that we know work," the governor said in an interview last week. Still, he says he has no immediate plans to push for repeal, and won't follow the lead of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who in 2003 commuted to life sentences the state's entire death row.
So Maryland will remain in the murky state of having capital punishment but not carrying it out, leaving victims' families and prosecutors frustrated.
"We're in the worst possible place we could be," said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a former chief prosecutor in Montgomery County who supports the death penalty. "We've set up a system of false promises for families of victims who are left wondering why it's not sought or why it's not carried out in the case of their loved one."
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger is pursuing capital charges in the murder-for-hire case of a woman accused of hiring a hit man to kill her husband at their Towson gas station last year. Shellenberger said he has to sit with victims "to explain the realities of the death penalty in Maryland."
"I tell them it could be 15 years or much longer, and involve so many twists and turns that I can't even describe it now," he said. "A lot of them don't want to go through with it."
The men on death row at a maximum-security prison in Western Maryland also remain in limbo.
Heath Burch was sentenced in 1996 for killing his neighbors, a husband and wife, with a pair of scissors. His attorney says Burch is aware of the de facto moratorium, but says it doesn't alleviate any anxiety.
"He knows well that it's subject to which way the political winds are blowing at any given time," attorney Michael E. Lawlor said. "At any given moment, new execution protocols could be adopted, and the state could seek to go forward in his case."
Capital cases on docket
Prosecutors have not abandoned capital punishment. The state is seeking death in six cases now pending.
This month, new Prince George's County State's Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks gave notice that she will try Darrell Lynn Bellard for capital murder. In that case, four people, two of them children, were shot to death in August in what appears to be a dispute over drug money.
Alsobrooks said the victims' family was "very much on board" with her decision.
"It's a heinous case," she said. "It's still the law in Maryland. I believe the death penalty is appropriate in some cases — certainly this one."
Thomas Leggs Jr., charged in the Christmastime 2009 abduction, sexual assault and slaying of an 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl, could be the first person prosecuted under new restrictions approved in 2009.
He is scheduled for trial in April. Last week, the Circuit Court judge hearing his case sanctioned the prosecutors' request to seek the death penalty.
Bricker said she feels sorry for families just beginning their journey through the court system.
"Just like us," she said, "they'll never find justice."