Frederick A. Romano's sister, a newlywed, was raped and shot to death 15 years ago in her White Marsh apartment. Her killer is one of 12 who sit on Maryland's death row. Romano is anxious to see him executed.
"To put somebody in prison for the rest of their life, they still get to breathe, they still get to eat, they still get to see their mommy and daddy - they don't get death," Romano said. "People like my sister get death."
Vicki and Sylvester Schieber of Chevy Chase lost their daughter nearly five years ago after a man broke into her Philadelphia apartment by prying open her balcony door, raped her and killed her. Her murderer has been convicted in her death and a series of other crimes. He will never get out of prison. That is how the Schiebers want it.
"It would be an insult to our daughter's memory to put another person to death," Vicki Schieber said, "even the murderer of our daughter."
These were among the voices heard yesterday by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, as they considered several bills on the death penalty, ranging from one that would abolish capital punishment to another that would require prosecutors to seek it in every eligible case.
An eight-month moratorium on the death penalty in Maryland expired last month when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. became governor, and after the release of a University of Maryland study that showed the state's death penalty was marred by racial and geographic disparity.
Steven H. Oken, the man convicted of murdering Dawn Marie Garvin, Romano's sister, was supposed to die next month. But his execution has been stayed by the Court of Appeals, after Oken's attorneys argued the death penalty law is unconstitutional because of the way it directs a judge or a jury to decide between a death sentence or life in prison. Maryland has executed only three people since 1976, but seven death warrants could be sought in coming months.
One of the bills calls for a new moratorium, which sponsor Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat, said would likely last two years, to further investigate the disparities uncovered in the study. A second bill, sponsored by Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat, would repeal the death penalty.
Lawmakers heard from the families of victims, the families of killers, church groups and others. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. told the committee he fears the state could kill an innocent person - and that's reason not to use it at all.
"You always need the ability to make a correction," he said. "With the death penalty, you don't have that ability to make a correction."
In 1994, Kirk N. Bloodsworth was released after nine years in prison, seven of which the Cambridge man spent on death row after he was convicted in the rape and murder of a 9-year-old. And in November, 40-year-old Bernard Webster was freed from prison after serving 20 years in the rape of a Towson woman. Both were exonerated through the use of DNA evidence.
Committee Chairman Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, asked Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, a death penalty proponent, , whether it was possible that someone wrongly convicted could be executed. "If you execute one innocent person out of 100, is that OK?" he asked.
Replied Gansler: "I don't agree that today any innocent person has been executed in the state of Maryland, nor are any of those on death row innocent."
Committee members asked pointed questions of witnesses, particularly of Curran. Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican from Harford County, wondered aloud if Curran is able to enforce the laws of the state, including the use of the death penalty, considering his passionate stance against it. "It would be hard for me to do that," she said.
Curran assured her he can and does follow the state's laws. "I'm simply suggesting that we change the law," he said.
Among other things, the University of Maryland study showed that the likelihood that prosecutors will seek capital murder charges in Baltimore County is 13 times greater than in Baltimore, even when other factors such as the circumstances of the crime and the jurisdiction's racial makeup are taken into account.
Another bill, sponsored by Jacobs, would force prosecutors to seek the death penalty in every death-eligible case - meaning hundreds more a year, perhaps. The only exception would be in cases where the family of the victim asked them not to seek death. This was her effort, Jacobs said, to try to erase some of the geographical disparity.
Katy O'Donnell, chief attorney in the capital defense division of the state's Office of the Public Defender, vehemently opposed the restriction on what decisions prosecutors can make. "You cannot try to solve the problem by limiting prosecutorial discretion," she told them. "You've got to find another way."
"Do you have any suggestions?" Jacobs asked.
"I have a lot of suggestions," O'Donnell said.
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