The most recent commission to examine the death penalty in Maryland released their report today. The final report of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment can be found here. The Commission voted 13 to 7 to recommend that capital punishment be abolished in the State of Maryland. Of the seven commissioners who voted to retain capital punishment, six joined in a minority report which is included in the final report document.
Since 1978 when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, five persons have been executed in Maryland, the latest in 2005. Five more remain on death row. Of the five executed, four were convicted in Baltimore County and one in Baltimore City. Of the five remaining on death row, two are from Baltimore County, one from Baltimore City, one from Prince George's County and the fifth, Jody Miles, was convicted in Wicomico County in 1998.
Since December of 2006, when the state's highest court ruled that the protocols used in Maryland to carry out the death penalty were improperly developed, there has been an effective moratorium on the death penalty here. The Governor, who opposes the death penalty, has reluctantly moved toward ending the moratorium by ordering that new procecures be drafted.
The death penalty has been contentious in Maryland for years. Last year the General Assembly effectively ducked the issue by ordering the creation of the Commission to examine the issue. This is not the first commission to do so and there have also been several 'studies'.
Opponents of the death penalty make several arguments:
- that state-sanctioned executions are immoral and/or unethical;
- that significant racial disparity exists in the imposition of the death penalty - blacks who kill whites are much more likely to be sentenced to death as opposed to blacks who kill blacks or whites who kill whites;
- that significant jurisidicational disparity exists. For example, the death penalty is much more likely to be imposed in Baltimore County than elsewhere in the state and this disparity based on where the crime is committed is seen as arbitrary and capricious;
- that, due to a variety of factors, death penalty cases are much more expensive to prosecute, defend and carry out than other cases, placing a significant cost on Maryland taxpayers ($186 million between 1978 and 1999 according to a study by the Urban Institute; and
- that there is a risk of innocent people being executed.
Proponents of the death penalty dispute each of these arguments. They contend that there is no real racial disparity - that the appearance of racial disparity in some studies is really the result of jursidictional disparity. That is, since most death penalty cases originate in Baltimore County and most murder victims in Baltimore County are white, statistics will appear to show that the death penalty is predominately sought against those who murdered whites.
Proponents defend the jurisidictional disparity as simply a democratic exercise of local option. They acknowledge that death penalty cases are more expensive to prosecute and carry out, but believe the study by the Urban Institute overstates the case because it looks at opportunity cost rather than out-of-pocket cost.
Proponents of the death penalty believe that the chance of a guilty person being executed is very small, particulary given the powerful evidence that DNA analysis can now provide. Proponents further believe that the death penalty is a powerful deterent to crime and that it needs to be part of the state's arsenal of weapons to apply to the most heinous of crimes.
Finally, death penalty proponents believe, to put it bluntly, that some crimes deserve the death penalty. This notion of retributional justice is common to many of us - that the punishment should fit the crime, an eye for an eye, measure for measure, etc.
This is going to be another contentious issue for the General Assembly. Last year, it was approved by the House of Delegates but was tied up in a committee in the Senate and never came to the floor. That could easily happen again.
Personally, I think it's time to abolish the death penalty in Maryland and replace it with the option of life in prison without parole.
First, the reality is that death penalty cases can drag on forever - three of the current residents of death row in Maryland were convicted in 1984 - twenty-four years ago. Such a lengthy period of uncertainty is expensive for the state and difficult for the families of the victims.
Second, I do believe it's possible for an innocent person to be convicted, even with modern investigative techniques. There have been numerous cases both in Maryland and nationwide where people convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death were later found to be innocent. The frailty of even eyewitness testimony is well established and there have been numerous cases of false confessions. Once an innocent person is executed, there is no way to undo the sentence.
Third, the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime assumes that the decision to commit a crime results from a rational, logic-based thought process that weighs the benefit of committing the crime against the chance of getting caught and the perceived cost of the likely penalty. I don't think this is ever the case.
While I understand the argument for retributive justice, I don't think the purpose of the criminal justice system in Maryland is to exact revenge, rather the purpose is to keep us safe.
So, let's hope the General Assembly can put together the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing this time instead of putting the decision off yet again. While some surveys show that a majority of Marylanders support the death penalty, only a minority support it if an alternative of life without parole is offered. That sounds like a good option to me.
[The image is of the 1833 painting by Paul Delaroche of the Execution of Lady Jane Gray. It currently hangs in the National Gallery in London]