Death penalty commission’s recommendation inspires optimism

Archdiocesan leaders are hopeful Maryland will soon end the death penalty after a state commission recommended its abolition Nov. 12.

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien believes there are enough votes on the floors of the State Senate and House of Delegates to follow the commission’s recommendation and pass legislation outlawing capital punishment next year. The key, he said, will be getting the bill out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee where it has fallen one vote short in previous legislative sessions.

“If we can get it out of committee, we’ve won,” Archbishop O’Brien said.

Baltimore’s 15th archbishop testified in Annapolis against the death penalty during an August hearing before the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment.

Made up of 23 members, including Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden, the commission was chaired by Benjamin Civiletti, a former U.S. attorney general. Other members included family members of murder victims, prosecutors, a police chief and Kirk Bloodsworth, an Eastern Shore native who served time on death row for a murder he didn’t commit.

The commission found that the death penalty is unequally applied on the basis of race and geography. It also raised concerns that innocent people may be killed and that capital punishment cases are more costly than cases involving life without parole sentences.

“I think this was a balanced committee, and they listened very carefully and discussed every angle of the death penalty,” Archbishop O’Brien said. “I think they were won over by the reasonable arguments – ethical, moral and economic. I hope it registers in the Assembly.”

Although he had hoped for more commission votes against the death penalty, Richard J. Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said the panel’s 13-7 recommendation represents a “strong majority opinion.”

Mr. Dowling cited a 2005 Mason-Dixon poll commissioned by the Maryland Catholic Conference showing that while statewide support for the death penalty is 56 percent, statewide preference for sentences of life without parole as a death penalty substitute stands at 63 percent.

Sen. Lisa Gladden, a Baltimore City Democrat who plans to introduce a bill banning the death penalty, said she wasn’t convinced the commission’s recommendation will change many minds. It will take much lobbying to win the decisive vote on the Senate committee, she said.

“I’m very realistic about where we are,” she said. “We have a lot of people who were not on the commission and who have not seen the report who believe there is a place for the death penalty in Maryland jurisprudence.”

Sen. Gladden said the commission rightly weighed evidence that the death penalty system is “fraught with error.”

Archbishop O’Brien praised the efforts of Bishop Madden for serving on the commission.

“I know that his input was valued by his colleagues on the commission, and our state owes thanks to all of the members for their critical and thorough review of this most important issue,” he said.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.