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Panel releases final report on capital punishment

Resource type: News


A Maryland commission on Friday formally recommended repealing capital punishment, issuing a report death penalty opponents hope will add momentum to legislative efforts to abolish executions.

But a minority report signed by eight of the commission’s 23 members argued that the law should be kept on the books, because Maryland rarely and carefully uses capital punishment.

The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment decided on a 13-9 vote to repeal the state’s death penalty law, citing racial and jurisdictional disparities in how it is used.

“It is not regularized,” said Benjamin Civiletti, the commission chairman who served as the U.S. attorney general under former President Carter. “It’s a matter of happenstance of color and jurisdiction.”

The commission, which held its first public meeting in July, also found that it is significantly more expensive to bring capital cases through the legal system than to seek life in prison.

The report cited a study by the Urban Institute that found it cost $1.1 million to prosecute a capital-eligible case in which the death penalty is not sought, while it cost $1.8 million in a case that unsuccessfully sought the death penalty. A case that resulted in a death penalty cost $3 million, according to the study.

The panel also concluded it’s possible that an innocent person could be executed in Maryland through legal errors, and that capital punishment is not a deterrent.

But Scott Schellenberger, Baltimore County state’s attorney who supports the death penalty, wrote in a minority report that there is no proof of racial disparity. He also said there’s no question about the guilt of the five people currently on Maryland’s death row and the fact that there are only five demonstrates Maryland doesn’t seek the death penalty often.

As for expense, Schellenberger disputed the estimates as inflated, and he said it’s wrong to put a price on justice.

“When you look at what the actual costs are, while death penalty cases may cost more, it’s not so exorbitantly more that that’s a reason to abandon justice,” Schellenberger said.

Legislation to ban capital punishment in Maryland has been submitted for years. But repeal efforts have gathered strength as capital punishment has come under greater scrutiny nationwide.

Also, Gov. Martin O’Malley, who entered office nearly two years ago, is a death penalty opponent who supports ending capital punishment. His predecessor, former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, was a death penalty supporter who resumed executions after a moratorium had been in place pending a 2003 University of Maryland study that found significant racial and geographic disparity.

A repeal measure during his first legislative session in 2007 failed on a 5-5 vote in a Senate committee. This year, a Senate committee voted to create the commission when it was clear the votes weren’t there to send the bill to the full Senate.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who is a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and served on the commission, said the 132-page report demonstrates “overwhelming support on this commission that dramatic problems exist in our state.”

“So I don’t know where it leads us, but I know that my colleagues in the Senate and the House side will take the report and study it very carefully,” Raskin said.

Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who was a member of the panel, said he was optimistic the report would persuade lawmakers to support a repeal.

“I think the overwhelming weight of the evidence in this report, we feel, will be persuasive with our colleagues,” Rosenberg said.

If a measure were to find support in the Senate committee, it’s unclear what would happen in the full Senate, which Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a death penalty supporter, has described as divided on the issue.

There is currently a de facto moratorium against capital punishment in Maryland because of a ruling in late 2006 by the state’s highest court. The Court of Appeals found 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. Corrections officials have said the protocols could be ready to submit to a legislative committee by the end of the year.

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