ON PAPER, Maryland courts are empowered to impose the death penalty in certain murder cases. In practice, the state’s death penalty is in remission. Five convicts remain on death row, and defendants can be prosecuted for capital murder and sentenced to death, but the state lacks any legal method of carrying out executions. No one has been put to death in Maryland since 2005.
That status quo seems acceptable to the power brokers in Annapolis, who would rather not add to a list of controversies that now includes legalizing same-sex marriage and subsidizing higher education for illegal immigrants.
But by ducking the issue, they are leaving in place a costly, inefficient, unjust and dysfunctional system that exacts a terrible toll on the families of murder victims. Rather than legislating and leading, state lawmakers are in denial.
Three years ago, an effort to abolish the death penalty narrowly failed in the General Assembly, which instead restricted it to cases where there is DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or video linking the suspect to a murder. But the legislature’s reform fixed nothing; if anything, it codified a system even more arbitrary than the one it replaced. Now the nature of the evidence, rather than the barbarity of the crime, is the critical factor. So a murder conviction based on DNA evidence might result in a death sentence, but not a Virginia Tech-style killing spree whose perpetrator is identified by multiple witnesses.
Nor did the changes in the Maryland law address the racial and jurisdictional disparities in the death penalty’s application. And there is no evidence that the death penalty is more effective at deterring murders than is a sentence of life without parole.
The broken system is particularly burdensome for the families of murder victims, who face years, even decades, of litigation. Three of the state’s five death-row prisoners were sentenced nearly 30 years ago; the others were sentenced in the mid-1990s.
Whatever moral convictions one holds about capital punishment — and we think it is wrong — Maryland has failed to find an evenhanded, just and fair-minded way to apply it. As a recent report by some of Maryland’s most prominent attorneys concluded, the state’s current law “is likely to increase the arbitrariness of the imposition of the death penalty because persons who commit the most heinous crimes — the ‘worst of the worst’ — are not necessarily the same people who will be eligible for the death penalty.”
A majority of the Maryland General Assembly favors an end to capital punishment in the state. Still, legislative leaders are reluctant to allow consideration of a bill that would repeal the death penalty and shift the anticipated savings in the state budget to programs to benefit victims’ families. The leaders would rather leave in place a system that is a disgrace to justice, and to Maryland.