Death-penalty opponents gather to press cause

Annual event outside the Supreme Court draws Md. activists, others to call for an end to executions

July 01, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Kirk Bloodsworth celebrated his 20th year of freedom Friday after he was wrongfully convicted of murder in Maryland and sentenced to death.

On Saturday, he joined with activists to mark other anniversaries: 41 years since the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily halted executions and 37 years (come Tuesday) since it allowed them to resume.

Dozens who gathered in front of the court Saturday want to see the death penalty permanently abolished. They kicked off a four-day vigil and fast to bring attention to the cause.

Organizers have held — coincidentally — the Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty every year since Bloodsworth walked out of prison, exonerated by DNA evidence that later led to the true killer. This time, he spoke to the crowd.

"I would love to stand here and tell you my story is unique," said Bloodsworth, 52, who now lives in Philadelphia. "But it is not."

Others speaking out at the event included relatives of murder victims and of people on death row. The banners behind them were somber: "37 years of blood on our hands." And, "We remember the victims … but not with more killing." And "Should It Be Constitutional to Execute the Innocent? The U.S. Supreme Court says 'YES.'"

But the mood was largely upbeat. Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation in May to repeal Maryland's death penalty, making it the sixth state in six years to outlaw the practice.

"Now we know we're winning," said Abe Bonowitz of Cheverly, Md., a campaign strategist who has worked for years to ban executions. His license plate says "ABOLISH."

Maryland's repeal doesn't apply to the five men already on death row. The governor's office said Friday that no decisions have been made in those cases.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, meanwhile, said he believes he could legally seek the death penalty in a murder case set for trial in August because the law doesn't go into effect until October. But he said Friday that he decided not to do so.

"Since the legislature and the governor have expressed the will that the death penalty should be done away with, it just didn't seem fair to me to continue to pursue it in this particular case," said Shellenberger, a capital-punishment supporter who helped with the ultimately unsuccessful signature drive to get the repeal petitioned to referendum.

In Maryland, death penalty supporters said such punishment is necessary for the worst crimes, and they worry about what it will mean to have the option off the table. Opponents said the death sentence has not proved to be a crime deterrent, and they argue that it's expensive and morally wrong.

Bill Pelke, who helped start the Supreme Court vigil event 20 years ago, changed his mind about the death penalty after one of the teenage girls charged with killing his grandmother in 1985 was sentenced to death in Indiana.

He said he knew his grandmother — a Bible school teacher — would not want the girl's family to "go through what we went through." And God, he said, wanted him to show compassion as well. So he wrote to Paula Cooper in prison and promised to help. Her sentence was commuted to 60 years after a Supreme Court ruling, and in June, at age 43, she was released.

"This girl is not the same person she was," said Pelke, who lives in Alaska. "She was 15 years old when she committed the crime."

The vigil he helped launch is partly about educating the tourists, interns and others who pass by on First Street, and partly about recharging activists' batteries. Many of the participants come year after year and know each other well.

"After so many years," said Maria Romstedt of Virginia, "the people you see there are like family."

Some literally have become so. Bonowitz met his wife at the 2004 vigil. Two years later, he and Beth Wood married on the sidewalk before the Supreme Court at the end of the four-day fast.

Bonowitz prepared for this year's fast by going to dinner on Friday — with Bloodsworth, to celebrate the anniversary of his release.

"We've come a long way as a society," Bloodsworth said Saturday. "We can do far better than just killing people."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.