Demise of death row inmate rekindles debate over capital punishment

A year after repeal, four prisoners still await execution

  • John Booth-El, seen in this April 2001 file photo, died Sunday morning at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, according to a state corrections spokesperson. Booth-El, 60, was one of five death row inmates in Maryland.
John Booth-El, seen in this April 2001 file photo, died Sunday… (Bo Rader, Baltimore Sun )
April 28, 2014|By Jeff Barker and Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

Convicted double murderer John Booth-El died in prison over the weekend, but a thorny debate outlived him: What should happen to the four other death-row inmates in legal limbo after the repeal of Maryland's capital punishment law?

Booth-El's death, which authorities said appeared to be from natural causes, rekindled debate over whether the inmates — all convicted of murder and sentenced years ago — should have their terms commuted to reflect the state's new attitude toward the death penalty.

Booth-El's attorney, Michael Millemann, said Monday that in the aftermath of the repeal last year, it's illogical that prisoners continue to exist under threat of execution.

"The repeal of the death penalty should justify eliminating those sentences," said Millemann, who had represented Booth-El since 1989. "It makes no sense to conclude the death penalty doesn't work, that we don't need it or want it, then not to [apply that reasoning] to the guys on death row. It ought to be ended for everybody."

Booth-el, 60, died Sunday morning at the maximum-security North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland.

Nobody has been put to death in Maryland since 2006 because of a de facto moratorium imposed before the repeal passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley. Still, opponents of commutation argue that the law's change was never intended to apply to those already on death row.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said Monday that the remaining inmates' death sentences should not be commuted.

"They were sentences deemed appropriate by the jurors, approved by the judge and all direct appeals were denied," Shellenberger said. "They shouldn't change that because some of the political winds have changed."

According to court records, Booth-El, then known as John Booth, and an accomplice, William "Sweetsie" Reid, broke into the home of Irvin Bronstein, 78, and his wife Rose, 75, on May 19, 1983, intending to steal money to buy drugs.

The couple were neighbors of Booth's in the area just north of Pimlico Race Course in Pikesville.

Before Booth and Reid left the Bronsteins' home, they bound and gagged the elderly couple, stabbing each 12 times and leaving them to die.

Millemann conceded that the slayings were unusually brutal.

Booth was given the death penalty for the murder of Irvin Bronstein and was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Rose Bronstein. Reid received two life sentences in a separate trial.

Booth's case then wound its way through the legal system, where over a course of years, it became a sort of test case for the applicability — and the complexity — of the death penalty itself.

Three times — in 1987, 1990 and 2001 — his death sentence was overturned, only to be reimposed at a later date.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., reinstated the sentence for the final time in 2003.

Booth, who converted to Islam and adopted the name Booth-El in prison more than 20 years ago, never gave up on his quest to have the sentence reduced. Millemann said he had several motions pending in Baltimore Circuit Court at the time of his death.

During his nearly 31 years behind bars, Booth-El became a vocal advocate for prison reform, arguing in online lectures for legal scholars, for example, that the U.S. judicial system imposes capital punishment on minority and poor defendants far more often than it does on better-connected ones, said his sister, Patricia Booth-Townes of Randallstown.

Booth-El's case entered another form of limbo in March 2013, when the General Assembly voted to end the state's use of the death penalty.

But the repeal did not extend to those already awaiting execution. According to Millemann, the question remains an open one in Maryland law.

Similar cases have developed in other states, the attorney said. In two, Illinois and New Jersey, state legislatures banned the death penalty, and their governors immediately commuted the sentences of those on death row to life in prison.

Two other states, Connecticut and New Mexico, have banned capital punishment in all future cases but, like Maryland, have not decided the fate of the individuals still awaiting execution.

According to Maryland statute, any prisoner, whether on death row or not, may file a petition for clemency or commutation directly to the governor's office.

At that point, Millemann said, a governor is entitled by law to "respond however he wants. The commutation power is very broad."

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, long a vocal opponent of the death penalty, could make that move, but so far he has not.

The governor's office replied Monday with a written statement reflecting his position.

"The governor will continue to make those decisions on a case-by-case basis as they reach his desk," the statement said.

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