Death penalty repeal effort moves forward

The longstanding effort to repeal Maryland’s death penalty moved forward with a state commission’s recommendation that executions be ended.

The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment’s final report to the General Assembly on Dec. 12 heartened Catholic leaders and other opponents of the death penalty.

They’re hopeful the report, approved 13-9, would sway lawmakers who have opposed repeal.

By much wider margins than the overall vote for repeal, commission members agreed on key findings that death penalty critics say underscore the need to abolish capital punishment. For example, they agreed, 20-1, that racial and jurisdictional disparities exist in Maryland’s sentencing system in death penalty cases and, 18-3, that the death penalty poses a serious risk that innocent people would be executed despite advances in forensic and DNA evidence.

“I think the votes on individual findings are really very significant,” said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. “Overwhelmingly, the commission recognized the risk of executing an innocent person. I think when you take that with other findings, they’re very, very compelling findings of the commission.”

The commission’s chairman, former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, suggested some members might have agreed with the findings but voted against repeal because of resistance to change, fear of upsetting constituents or allegiance to positions of a group.

“The commission was unanimous in its support for swift, sure and fair law enforcement,” Mr. Civiletti said. “The capital punishment process in Maryland is none of these.”

Widespread myths notwithstanding, Mr. Civiletti noted executing someone costs more than life imprisonment; the death penalty does not deter crime; and whether a suspect gets a fair trial in a capital case can depend on his race and the venue.

Some lawmakers who served on the commission predicted the report’s findings would change some minds in the State House.

“I think the overwhelming weight of the evidence in this report we feel will be persuasive with our colleagues,” said Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. “Now that we have results that dispel many of the myths about the death penalty, we feel that that will have a positive effect and that we will have a majority on the floor of both houses.”

Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden, a member of the commission, agreed.

Explaining his vote, Bishop Madden said, “As Pope John Paul II has always said, ‘In our day, we have other means at our disposal other than to take someone’s life, and we ought to use these means.’ ”

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl and Wilmington Bishop W. Francis Malooly called on lawmakers to repeal the death penalty and urged Catholic voters to do the same.

“We ask legislators to consider thoroughly the commission’s troubling findings about the application of the death penalty in our state,” the bishops said in a joint statement.

Maryland Citizens Against State Executions called the commission’s report a “scathing indictment” of a state death penalty system that “simply cannot be fixed.”

The commission also released a minority report, and Scott Shellenberger, the Baltimore County state’s attorney who helped write it, presented some of its findings.

“It’s my strong belief that the death penalty should remain a sentencing option for prosecutors who wish to seek it,” he said. “The majority of Marylanders share my view that we must retain the death penalty as an available tool for prosecutors to use when faced with the worst of the worst.”

He disputed the assertion that racial and geographic sentencing disparities demonstrated unfairness but reflected “home rule” – or local decision-making in each government jurisdiction.

“We saw no evidence of purposeful discrimination of any kind by any prosecutor ever,” Mr. Shellenberger said. “What it really is is a jurisdictional difference.”

Gov. Martin J. O’Malley said in a statement that he looked forward to reading the commission’s report. “I also recognize that this is a very personal issue for members of the General Assembly, families of victims, law enforcement and the public,” the statement said. “But it is my hope that we can all take the time to review the facts presented in this report thoroughly and with an open mind.”

The General Assembly created the commission in the last legislative commission. It included lawmakers, prosecutors, clergy, prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement officials, family members of murder victims and Kirk N. Bloodsworth, an Eastern Shore native and Catholic convert who served time on death row for a murder he did not commit. Over the past four months, the commission has had five public hearings and five additional meetings.

“We found that there is a real possibility to execute an innocent person, and I learned this from my own experience,” Mr. Bloodsworth said. “Maryland must continue though to be diligent in identifying the causes of wrongful convictions in order to prevent future miscarriages of justices.”

Catholic Review

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