Maryland's Death Penalty
It's time to discuss giving it up.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

THE MARYLAND COURT of Appeals has thrown a big wrench into the state's already anemic death penalty enforcement. It ruled last week that Maryland's procedures for lethal injection were adopted without adequate legislative oversight. With that ruling, which will effectively halt executions until new procedures are adopted, the Maryland court joined what is fast becoming a national trend. Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) halted executions there after a botched lethal injection took over half an hour. A court in California blocked use of that state's execution cocktail. Nationally, there have been fewer executions this year than in any in the past decade -- and delays associated with challenges to lethal-injection protocols, which are now said to cause significant pain, constitute one of the reasons for the low figure.

For those of us who oppose capital punishment, any public debate that slows the wheels of death is a good thing. That said, this issue seems more than a little absurd. Leaving aside the technicalities of Maryland administrative law, it is a little tough to understand why states that have no scruples about killing people as punishment for their crimes might blanch at a brief period of discomfort for the condemned along the way. This is, after all, the intentional infliction of death; why should anyone expect it to be pretty? The sudden scruples around the country about the fact that taking human life may actually involve pain can only be understood as a surrogate for the real issue: whether Americans want to be taking life at all.

In some states this question is still taboo. Getting rid of the death penalty is all but unthinkable in Virginia, for example. But Maryland is different. Its death penalty has been used only five times since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. It plays only the most incidental role in the state's criminal justice system -- so incidental, ironically, that its use creates wild regional and racial disparities in the administration of justice. Executions have been suspended in the past. Were the death penalty abolished in Maryland, almost nobody would miss it.

The Maryland court action is therefore an opportunity for a much broader discussion of the utility, justice, necessity and morality of capital punishment. It comes at a propitious moment. Incoming governor Martin O'Malley (D) personally opposes the death penalty. He did not appear inclined to dismiss the court ruling as a mere technicality -- which, formally speaking, is all it really is. That's good. Maryland doesn't need a big debate about how it kills people, but the time is ripe to debate whether it should stop.

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