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As Long as We Remember...

February 13, 2003

Governor Ehrlich's First Dilemma

Ronald W. Wolf

Al Duke is right about one thing (The Tentacle, January 31): Another study on the death penalty would be redundant. No one's opinion regarding the death penalty is going to change with additional studies.

It's Governor Robert Ehrlich's first dilemma. He made a campaign promise to lift the moratorium, even though the death penalty wasn't an issue. Lifting the moratorium may be the first step toward losing the next election.

Al Duke talked at length about the report requested by former Governor Parris Glendening. That report has a mountain of figures, a ton of tables, and a glut of data, but it showed little that isn't obvious. A disproportionate number of death penalty convictions result from trials in Baltimore County, and most of the people on death row in Maryland are African-American.

The report concluded that defendants in some counties are more likely to receive a death sentence than defendants in other counties; that the killer's race is not as important as the race of the victim; and that state's attorneys are most likely to seek the death penalty for African-Americans who are accused of killing whites.

Maryland's death penalty statute is fairly limiting and requires the following:

The defendant be 18 or older at the time of the offense.

The defendant cannot be mentally retarded.

The defendant must be convicted of first-degree murder and either be the actual killer or have paid the killer to commit the murder.

The state's attorney must notify the defense 30 days before trial of the intent to seek the death penalty and of the specific factors that make the crime eligible for the death penalty.

There must be a least one aggravating factor (examples of aggravating factors are killing a police officer, killing an abducted child, killing more than one victim - there are 10 of them).

The state legislature should make this list even more limiting to ensure fewer people qualify for the death penalty and further reduce the possibility that innocent individuals receive the death penalty. Judging by the number of people who have been exonerated and released from death row (check out the situation in Illinois), it happens.

There are too many variables to ever make the process flawless. The police and prosecutors may have the goods on a killer -- caught in the act, fingerprints on weapons, blood on clothes, face on videotape.

But there also are times when the evidence is less substantial or factors confound matters -- testimony from a witness of questionable character, a defendant on the edge of the law anyway and judged by jurors as someone to whom good riddance needs to be said; mismanaged evidence; the attitude toward the death sentence in some states or counties and indifference to life in others; overwhelmed or poorly prepared public defenders -- even though a trial leads to conviction and the death penalty. Jurors are rarely impaneled because they are astute or insightful. State's attorneys with long-range political plans seek the death penalty because they don't want to seem weak.

Will the report affect the death penalty in Maryland? Maybe.

Both Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele and Attorney General Joseph Curran have made public statements regarding the death penalty - Lt. Gov. Steele calling for another study and Attorney General Curran stating that the death penalty comes with the cost of executing "every so often, the wrong person." A state senator from Montgomery County may introduce legislation outlawing the death penalty altogether.

Maryland should be proud that the state is cautious about applying the death penalty. If you are opposed to the death penalty, you should insist, not that the death penalty be abolished, but that it be used as discriminately and infrequently as possible; and that it be pursued only with certainty that the condemned deserves what he or she may get. Maryland has it right by continuing to ensure as few people as possible are executed.

Governor Ehrlich has a number of dilemmas -- slots, the state budget, funding for schools, and a Democratic legislature that may decide to get confrontational. Lifting the moratorium is the wrong moral step and will prove to be the wrong political step, too.

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