March 23, 2013

Regarding the March 16 front-page article “Md. end of death penalty passes”:

Over the next century, the one innocent person who would have been tragically executed, despite Maryland’s heightened evidentiary requirements for capital cases, will be grateful for the state’s repeal of the death penalty.

Over the same period, the half-dozen prison guards murdered by vengeful or escaping lifers who know for sure that they have nothing more to lose won’t be so lucky. The dozens of dead women who would have been spared by angry spouses, who thought twice after being informed that murder in violation of a protective order is punishable by death, won’t be so lucky, either. Nor will the hundreds of murder victims who would have lived if inmates, upon their release from prison, were specifically informed that first-degree murder by someone who has served time for a violent felony is a capital offense in Maryland.

I make no claim of accuracy for the above numbers, of course; I’m merely illustrating a basic point: The innocent-execution argument, while emotionally compelling, tends to obscure the inconvenient truth that either way legislatures vote on the death penalty, they may be voting to kill innocent people, either by commission or omission. The open questions are which and how many innocents they are voting to condemn over time.

As typically, haphazardly implemented, the death penalty has essentially no deterrent value. But it can be a deterrent in some narrower cases, probably including the ones I noted above, and it should be retained for those specific circumstances where it is likely to save more innocent lives than it costs.

Mark S. Winston, Berwyn Heights