Justice without death

Just as advocates are renewing their push to abolish Maryland's death penalty, the state has been faced with exactly the kind of case that has proved one of the most persuasive arguments against their cause in the General Assembly. Late last month, an Anne Arundel County jury found Lee Edward Stephens guilty of murder in the killing of correctional officer Cpl. David McGuinn. Mr. Stephens had already been serving a life sentence when he stabbed Officer McGuinn at the now-shuttered House of Correction at Jessup. Defenders of capital punishment pointed to the case as a reason why repealing the death penalty and substituting life without the possibility of parole as the state's maximum sentence would be a mistake; absent the threat of execution, they say, inmates like Mr. Stephens would feel no compunction about killing again and again.

On the surface, that logic seems sound. As state Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. put it, "He got no additional sentence, then, because you can only have one life." But it doesn't work that way. There is a world of difference in psychological and practical terms between life and life without parole. This sentence erases any hope, however slight, that an inmate has that he could eventually be freed, and it eliminates any anxiety on the part of the community and the victim's family that he could be a menace to the state again. Furthermore, the correction system can treat an inmate like Mr. Stephens differently from one who has not shown himself to be a safety risk by sharply reducing his contact with others.

The idea that Maryland needs the death penalty as a deterrent to prison violence, particularly inmate-on-guard violence, rests on the assumption that assaults behind bars follow deeply rational cost-benefit analyses. But the Stephens case shows the fallacy of that reasoning. Maryland has the death penalty, but that didn't stop Mr. Stephens from assaulting Officer McGuinn.

Even the argument that Maryland's death penalty isn't a real deterrent because of the infrequency of its use falls flat. Officer McGuinn was killed in 2006, a time when, after years of disuse, Maryland's death penalty had been carried out twice in the previous two years. Moreover, Texas, the state with the highest number of executions, has significant problems with prison violence, including inmate-on-guard assaults. After a Texas corrections officer was killed by two inmates in 2007, the Dallas Morning News reported that inmate-on-guard assaults had doubled in the previous five years. Analysts there blamed the problem on understaffing in the prisons. That was also considered a factor in the Stephens case, along with the antiquated structure of the House of Correction, which made security difficult.

Maryland Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Gary D. Maynard has worked in Oklahoma and South Carolina, both states that are in the top 10 for the number of executions. He has worked in Iowa, where there is no death penalty, and in Maryland, where capital punishment exists but is under a de facto moratorium. In an interview with The Sun's editorial board last year, he refused to say what he personally thinks about capital punishment — he claims that not even his wife knows that — but he did have a definitive answer on whether the existence of the death penalty makes a difference in prison safety: no.

Anne Arundel County prosecutors made the case in arguing for the death penalty that Mr. Stephens was a danger behind bars — he had previously punched a guard in the face — but that argument ultimately failed to win over the jury, which sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole.

The conventional wisdom is that the death penalty repeal effort will remain bottled up in a Senate committee this year, with lawmakers disinclined to take on another tough social issue after voting to legalize gay marriage, and with the body otherwise preoccupied with the state budget. But lawmakers should consider the example of the Stephens jury, and jurors in a Baltimore County contract killing case before it, who were unpersuaded by the arguments for capital punishment. They found that the interests of justice and public safety can be served without the ultimate action of the state. We hope that lawmakers will come to that conclusion, too.