In death penalty repeal, reason over revenge at long last

General Assembly's vote to stop executions took informed leadership, courage of conscience

Death penalty repeal in Maryland

Left to right: Sylvester and Vicki Schieber, whose daughter Shannon was murdered; Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent several years on death row for a crime he did not commit, and NAACP President Ben Jealous celebrate the passage of SB276, which repeals the death penalty bill in Maryland. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / March 15, 2013)

Many of us believe that capital punishment, first used in the Province of Maryland in 1638, should have been relegated to the trash heap long ago. Politicians in Annapolis had overwhelming evidence of its costly and debilitating flaws for many years, but too many refused to attach their names to repeal.

Even in a state where they outnumbered Republicans 2-1, numerous Democrats feared being labeled soft on crime if they voted to end state executions. Indeed, the longtime president of the Senate, a Democrat, offered to personally inject poison into a convicted killer.

That kind of red-meat rhetoric provided the tough-on-crime credits that moderate and middling Democrats nationally were instructed to compile as the party recovered from the Reagan era and the "Willie Horton panic" in 1988. Bill Clinton approved executions while governor of Arkansas. As president, he pushed Congress to expand the federal death penalty to add dozens of categories of felonies, including some crimes that didn't even result in death.

And yet, despite Clinton's cynical political calculus, some Democrats always pushed to get Maryland on the growing list of states that have abolished this immoral and inefficient practice.

Five years ago, they received considerable help from a commission headed by former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti. It concluded that the application of the death penalty in Maryland was "arbitrary and capricious," flawed beyond repair.

The commission looked at the use of the death penalty over three decades and found disturbing racial disparities; killers of white victims were 21/2 times more likely to face the death penalty than killers of African-Americans.

The commission, composed of both death-penalty opponents and supporters, found geographic disparities, too: "The fact that similar capital offenses perpetrated by similar offenders are treated so differently depending on where the crimes are committed renders the administration of capital punishment irretrievably inconsistent, nonuniform and therefore unfair."

Baltimore County sent more men to death row than any other locality in the state, and that list included Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent nine years in prison — two on death row — before DNA evidence cleared him in the murder of a child. Baltimore County's insistence on the application of the death penalty prompted the studies that led to the conclusions of jurisdictional bias. And Bloodsworth became the face of the real possibility that the state could execute an innocent man.

Last, the Civiletti commission declared the death penalty a waste of money. By 2008, 62 of 77 death sentences had been reversed in costly post-conviction appeals while many inmates were kept on death row, at $68,000 for each inmate a year. "There are other areas in the Maryland criminal justice system where such resources could be applied and significant results could be expected," the commission said in its final report.

Five years later — and many years after other studies reached similar conclusions — we have repeal of the death penalty. And if it feels a bit anticlimactic, it's because the writing has been on the wall for so long.

Seventeen other states took this step before Maryland did. Thirteen years ago, George Ryan, the Republican governor of Illinois, declared a moratorium on executions because of what he called his state's "shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row."

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 142 death row inmates across the country have been exonerated since 1973. That's 142 innocent people not only convicted but sentenced to die.

Perhaps you know all this.

Perhaps you know this, but still believe the state should have the right to decree a human being unfit to live, and that we should be allowed to strap him to a table and inject him with poison.

There are a lot of Marylanders who still feel that way, according to a poll released last week by the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.

But the Goucher Poll, conducted earlier this month, shows how misinformed Marylanders are about the death penalty and how conflicted many of them are.

When asked to say how many executions Maryland had carried out in the last 10 years, only 15 percent got it right. While just two men have been put to death in the last decade, 30 percent of Marylanders in the Goucher Poll estimated state-sanctioned deaths at between 4 and 10; another 30 percent believe we had killed anywhere from 11 to 100 inmates. Four percent believe we'd killed more than 100.

Majorities said they doubt the death penalty serves as a deterrent to murder and expressed a preference for life in prison over a death sentence. And yet, 51 percent of Marylanders said they believe the state should retain the right to kill. That doesn't make sense.

In the end, it takes informed leadership and the courage of conscience to sort out feelings from facts and to hold rational law and reason above the populist instinct for revenge and the political instinct for self-preservation. We got that from the Maryland General Assembly, at long last.

Featured Stories

Advertisement

PLAN AHEAD

Top Trending Videos