Maryland executions may resume under new protocols

As the state prepares a public review of newly drafted protocols for administering the death penalty, the leader of the Maryland Catholic Conference is vowing to speak out about how capital punishment is applied.

Announced by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services June 24, the protocols introduce new regulations for the administration of lethal injections. They must be reviewed by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review. Public hearings are expected to be held.

“I think a full understanding on the part of the public of the graphic detail of the procedure alone will make people think twice about state executions and how they are problematic for our society,” said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

Russell said the Catholic Conference, which represents Maryland’s bishops, opposes the death penalty in all forms, but has particular concerns about lethal injection.

“Using lethal injection as the means of applying the death penalty raises real questions about the drugs that are used,” Russell said. “They are designed to paralyze the person, which raises the question of whether or not they would feel pain. While it may give the appearance of a person dying peacefully, the reality may be very different.”

Russell was encouraged by some elements of the new protocols that encourage “humane treatment” of inmates. They include a requirement that medical personnel find alternatives to injecting an inmate in the arm if his veins are unable to receive a needle. The protocols also ban a procedure known as a “cut down,” during which veins are cut to administer the deadly drugs.

“It’s all very relative when you’re talking about ending a person’s life,” she said.

There has been a virtual moratorium on executions since 2006 when the Maryland Court of Appeals said the existing protocols were not properly promulgated.

Gov. Martin J. O’Malley, a Catholic opponent of the death penalty, had sought a ban on capital punishment in the last two legislative sessions but could not win enough support. Lawmakers instead severely restricted the application of the death penalty, passing a bill this year that limits it to those cases where there is biological or DNA evidence, a videotape of the crime in progress, or a voluntary, videotaped confession.

Gov. O’Malley signed the bill into law, calling it “one of the most restrictive” in the nation. In a June 24 statement, the governor said the new regulations “mark an important step in ensuring that the death penalty in Maryland is carried out in a manner consistent with state and federal law.”

“While I personally oppose the death penalty,” he said, “I took an oath to uphold the laws of our state.”

When she testifies at public hearings, Russell said she will also emphasize that the Catholic Conference wants to see “very strong” conscience protections in the protocols so individuals would not have to participate in a process they find morally objectionable.

“We’re very reluctant to see the state move forward on anything that will move us closer to actual state executions,” Russell said.

Catholic Review

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