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Md. prosecutor: Death penalty imposed sparingly

Resource type: News

The Associated Press State & Local Wire |

by BRIAN WITTE Maryland rarely executes prisoners and reserves such punishment for the worst criminals, a prosecutor told a state commission Tuesday. But a commissioner once sentenced to death said his case proved that innocent people can end up on death row. Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Schellenberger, who also is a member of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, testified that the state has only five people on death row, compared with 667 in California. He also noted that Maryland has only executed five prisoners since reinstating capital punishment in 1976. “We’re very judicious in how we do it,” Schellenberger told the commission during a meeting in Annapolis. He also argued that what some describe as disparities in how death sentences are imposed in different jurisdictions is because of differences in local representative governments. “I believe jurisdictional disparity is really local rule,” said Schellenberger, whose office was found in a Maryland study to be 13 times more likely to seek a death sentence than prosecutors in the city of Baltimore. But Schellenberger’s testimony brought a swift response from another commission member: Kirk Bloodsworth, a Maryland man who at one time was on death row and was later freed from prison because of DNA evidence. Bloodsworth said it was “amazing” to hear Schellenberger argue that Maryland gets the death penalty right. Bloodsworth also said his case proved that egregious errors can be made in capital cases. “I think it’s a little cavalier for you or anybody in the state to say that they couldn’t make an error of that magnitude, and I think my case proves it,” Bloodsworth said. Schellenberger avoided talking to Bloodsworth directly, instead addressing commission chairman Benjamin Civiletti. “Mr. chairman, I believe the purpose of my testimony today was to say that that hasn’t happened in Maryland, and I don’t believe that anyone on death row is innocent,” Schellenberger said. Bloodsworth responded: “I guess, Mr. chairman, my whole point in this whole thing is how close do we have to get?” Bloodsworth was twice convicted of the 1984 murder of a 9-year-old girl and spent two years on death row after his first trial. He was convicted again and sentenced to life in prison before he was cleared in 1993. The commission was created in the last legislative session to address several concerns, including racial, jurisdictional and socio-economic issues in the death penalty. It will make recommendations to the General Assembly in December. There is a de facto moratorium against capital punishment in Maryland because of a ruling in late 2006 by the state’s highest court that the state’s lethal injection protocols weren’t properly approved by a legislative committee. Executions can’t resume until a new protocol is created for the committee to approve. Gov. Martin O’Malley, a death penalty opponent, has directed the state to begin working on the protocol, a process that could be finished by the end of the year. Wesley Baker, who was put to death in December 2005, was the last person to be executed in Maryland.

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