At the time of her brother's arrest and trial, Patricia Booth-Townes supported the death penalty — "an eye for an eye," as she put it. Even after her brother was sentenced to die, she says, she didn't waver. She just didn't believe he'd committed that heinous crime, despite the evidence presented in court.
But years later, while studying criminal justice at Coppin State University, she found herself researching capital punishment. She almost couldn't avoid it, she said, because her textbook mentioned her brother's case, which set a constitutional precedent for the use of "victim impact statements" in sentencing. She came to believe that the death penalty is unjust.
As lawmakers in Annapolis gear up for another round in the long-running debate over the death penalty in Maryland, Booth-Townes is a case study in how opinions on the issue evolve. While some lawmakers change long-held stances on the policy or reconsider in the face of intense lobbying, she offers a unique perspective. Relatives of Maryland's death row inmates are voices that are almost never heard in the General Assembly.
For nearly three decades, Booth-Townes has endured the anguish, anxiety and shame that's come since her older brother was convicted and sentenced to die for the killing of an elderly Pimlico couple. Now the 53-year-old Randallstown woman wants people to know about her family's pain.
"We've suffered greatly, just greatly, with this," she said. "It has been an ongoing nightmare for almost 30 years."
John Booth-El, 59, is one of five inmates in Maryland awaiting execution if the state ever resolves all its issues with capital punishment. He was convicted of fatally stabbing his neighbors, Irvin and Rose Bronstein, during a robbery of their home. His death sentence has been overturned three times, only to be reimposed.
Over the years, relatives of the Bronsteins have spoken out in favor of the death penalty and have expressed exasperation that Booth-El is still alive.
While acknowledging that her family's loss and torment don't compare with that of the Bronsteins', Booth-Townes recalls with a quiver in her voice how, after her brother's arrest, her young children suddenly lost all their playmates.
The threat of a loved one's execution, and the uncertainty about when it might be carried out, wear on the families of the convicted, Booth-Townes says, just as they do those of the victims.
"We're dreading it, they're expecting it," she said.
After analyzing the death penalty's application in Maryland and other states, she concluded that it is no deterrent to crime, that there are significant risks of executing an innocent person and — especially — that capital punishment has been meted out unevenly.
"I'm not a proponent of the death penalty anymore because it seems like there's two criminal justice systems," she said. "There's one for poor black and poor white, disenfranchised people, and then there's another for people of a certain status."
For years, though, Booth-Townes wouldn't even visit her brother in prison. She steered clear of him, she says, because she worked as a corrections officer, and after a couple years switched to parole and probation.
She did write him and talked to him on the phone. But to visit him behind bars, she'd need to notify her supervisors — and she didn't want to risk her career or incite gossip or suspicion.
"To be perfectly honest," she said, "I didn't want to be the talk of my co-workers at the lunch table, so I didn't put myself out like that.''
Her father, though, counseled her to "face my demons and enemies," and said that "no matter what," she should support her brother.
When she finally went to see him, "it was a tearful session. … I was just so doggone mad at him for … bringing this kind of attention to our family."
She says her brother acknowledged that he was a thief and heroin addict, but she believed him when she finally worked up the courage to ask him whether he'd killed the Bronsteins. He said no. (At the trial, Booth's lawyers argued that a codefendant had actually wielded the knife).
"There is a part of me that loves my brother and supports him," she said. "However, I would never support wrongdoing on anybody's behalf."
Booth-Townes says she hadn't really thought about going to Annapolis to testify for the governor's death penalty repeal bill. The measure would prohibit the imposition of capital punishment in future cases and would not be retroactive. But advocates say it's unlikely courts would allow an execution if the legislation is passed.
Booth-Townes says she'd feel some relief if the prospect of her brother being executed were lifted.
"It is my prayer that it be repealed," she said.
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