Maryland commission recommends abolishing death penalty
A 23-member commission set up in Maryland to investigate the death penalty in that state has released its final report; they recommend, by a vote of 13-9 with one abstention, abolishing capital punishment in the Seventh State. The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment included five legislators along with lawyers, civilians, and clergy; most were appointed by Governor Martin O’Malley, a death penalty opponent. It was chaired by former U.S. Attorney Benjamin Civiletti who said the commission recommended repeal rather than reform because “There are so many faults, so many flaws within the system that we could not imagine … ways in which to cure it.”
By a vote of 20-3 the commission found that racial disparities and differences in how the death penalty is sought from one jurisdiction to the next created significant problems.
The present administration of capital punishment shows substantial disparities in its application based on race and jurisdiction. … These disparities are so great among and between comparable cases that the death penalty process is best described as arbitrary and capricious.
For instance, the chances of receiving the death penalty in Baltimore County is about 23 times higher than the chances of receiving the death penalty in Baltimore City (they are geographically and politically distinct entities).
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger was a member of the commission and wrote a 22-page dissent which seven other members signed. He says that prosecutors must be able to “reflect the will of the people,” and said regional disparities can be explained by “local rule.” “Different sentences in different counties for the same kind of crime are legal and constitutional,” Shellenberger wrote in the dissent. “Disparities in sentencing exist in each county across the entire spectrum of crimes committed in Maryland.” He argued that the state should retain the death penalty as a tool to wield against “the worst of the worst.”
The commission reported that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent, saying they found “no persuasive evidence that the death penalty deters homicides in Maryland.” They also found that the additional costs that the death penalty incurs do not bring corresponding benefits. They estimate that $186 million could have been saved between 1978–1999 if the state had sought life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in lieu of the death penalty. Of course, they also cited the chance that an innocent person could be executed, despite advances in forensic science, including DNA evidence (which is only available in a minority of death eligible cases). For a summary of their findings, click here.
Fifteen other states, plush the District of Columbia, have no death penalty; and in many other states it is rarely used. Efforts to abolish capital punishment failed in the Maryland General Assembly the past two sessions, last year on a tied vote in a Senate committee. It is expected that the commission report will increase the chances of abolition passing during the 2009 session and will certainly make the debate one of chief interest.
Maryland has carried out five executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1978, two of them since 2000. Currently five people are on the state’s death row. Unlike most other states with the death penalty, Maryland does not offer the condemned a “last meal”; he or she is simply served whatever is on the prison menu that day. For more info, see Wikipedia’s article on capital punishment in Maryland, which has data going back to 1638.