Families share grief, but differ on the death penalty

Sandra Richardson and Bonnita Spikes have much in common. Both live in Upper Marlboro and are churchgoing Christians who have worked in nursing. Both have dealt with the pain of losing people they loved in murders.

When it comes to the death penalty, however, the two women are on opposite sides of one of the most divisive issues facing the General Assembly this year.

Richardson, 74, hopes to go to Annapolis this week to testify against Gov. Martin O'Malley's effort to end capital punishment in Maryland as she did when the governor made a similar effort four years ago. She'd like to tell lawmakers about her 38-year-old daughter, Lisa Richardson, who was strangled at her Charles County home in 2001 by a man who received a life sentence in a plea bargain.

A dozen years later, her voice chokes and tears fall when she tells the story.

"I don't think there's such a thing as closure," Richardson said. "I think there's such a thing as justice. What I feel is, my daughter didn't get justice."

Spikes, 59, plans to attend Thursday's hearings as a repeal advocate. She says she won't testify only because lawmakers have heard her story in previous years. Her tale is that of a mother of four whose husband stopped at a Manhattan market for a cold juice drink in 1994. Michael Spikes, 42, was shot and killed instantly in a robbery.

The two assailants were never caught. Even if they had been, Spikes wouldn't have wanted to see them executed.

"It wouldn't bring my baby back. It wouldn't bring my honey back. We were such a good pair," she said.

Maryland is not a state that sentences many people to death. Five men are on death row — three for crimes committed in 1983. Since 2006, the state has operated under a de facto moratorium because a court found fault with its rules governing lethal injections. The regulations haven't been replaced, and no executions are expected any time soon.

For opponents of capital punishment, a long-term halt is not enough. They want to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without parole. They are optimistic they will succeed.

This year, for the first time since 2009, repeal advocates have the full support of the governor, who has made it part of his legislative agenda. They appear to have a slim majority on their side in the state Senate, where their efforts have foundered before. If they prevail in the Senate, they are confident that they have enough votes in the House of Delegates.

Before either chamber votes, however, lawmakers will hear from citizens Thursday in hearings before Senate and House committees.

Lawmakers can expect to hear many voices on each side. Religious leaders — Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims — are expected to testify in favor of repeal. Prosecutors such as Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, perhaps joined by some public safety employees, are likely to make a case for keeping the death penalty.

Adding their voices will be the families of murder victims, people who — like Richardson and Spikes — have come to profoundly different conclusions about the wisdom and morality of the state's putting killers to death.

Wishing 'a vile creature could die'

Richardson remembers exactly when she spoke with her daughter for the last time: 8:06 a.m. March 1, 2001. They talked about going to Home Depot together, but at 9 a.m. there was no answer at Lisa's home. Richardson figured it was no big deal and went ahead with plans for a weekend trip to Boston.

When she got home and learned that Lisa, a mother of three, was missing, she knew something was terribly wrong.

Two weeks later, Lisa's body was found in a backyard storage locker — a place Charles County sheriff's deputies admitted they had overlooked in searches of her house. Arrested and charged with first-degree murder after a high-speed chase in Lisa's car was Mark Wayne Jennings, 30, described in news reports as her boyfriend, though Richardson insists that the two were not romantically involved.

There was no trial. Jennings entered an Alford plea, conceding that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict but not admitting guilt.

During the sentencing hearing, Richardson asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence.