Continuing a perennial debate in Annapolis, advocates of ending capital punishment told Maryland lawmakers on Wednesday that the death penalty is morally wrong, racist in its application and provides no comfort to grieving families.
But a bill to repeal the death penalty under consideration this session shows no sign of movement, legislators say.
“I think the vast majority of legislators down here that I speak with are very comfortable with where it is right now,” said Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who sits on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Three years ago, during debate in the Maryland General Assembly over abolishing capital punishment, Zirkin helped craft a compromise that restricted the death penalty to murder cases where there is conclusive DNA evidence, video evidence or a videotaped confession.
Zirkin said he is seen as a swing vote on the judicial committee, where the other members are either clearly for or against capital punishment.
“Personally, I’ve always been troubled by the death penalty. I see both sides of it,” he said.
During a press conference and bill hearing on Wednesday, opponents and supporters of the death penalty expressed unhappiness with the three-year-old reform. Opponents made clear they won’t be happy with anything short of a repeal, while Scott Shellenberger, Baltimore County’s chief prosecutor, said the reform prevents him from seeking the death penalty in heinous murder cases where the evidence does not meet the tightened evidentiary standards.
Zirkin said the opposition from all quarters “suggests to me that we have a pretty good compromise.”
Benjamin Jealous, president of the national NAACP, spoke at a press conference in support of this year’s repeal bill, which would also allocate any savings to victims’ services.
“The reality is that when we spend money killing a killer we’ve already got in a cage, we have less money to get the killers who are still on the streets off the streets,” Jealous said.
Another speaker was Vicki Schieber, the mother of a murder victim and a board member of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.
Schieber said her experience and those of other murder victims’ relatives have convinced her that the prolonged process of seeking the death penalty only adds to grieving families’ problems. “They find that it gradually and completely starts to tear their family apart,” she said.
Jealous also criticized the punishment’s unequal application, which he said results in having only prisoners convicted of killing white people on death row. “The death penalty application in Maryland is racist to its core,” he said.
“The answer to the racial element, quite frankly, is everybody needs to seek it when the statute allows it. If not, you’re going to have disparities,” Zirkin said.