Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

By Martin O'Malley
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

In evaluating whether Maryland's criminal death penalty should be replaced with life without parole, one must be guided by the answers to two basic questions:

· Is the death penalty a just punishment for murder?

· Is the death penalty an effective deterrent to murder?

Most of us would point to the execution of John Thanos, here in our state, as an example of a "just" application of the death penalty. Thanos murdered three teenagers, at random, by shooting them point-blank. He expressed no remorse, even declaring in court that he wished he could bring his innocent victims back to life to kill them again. In the end, he demanded to be executed and was. Most Marylanders felt, basically, that "hanging was too good" for John Thanos.

Did this one relatively humane execution balance out a violent murder -- much less three violent murders? Can any execution really be said to "even the ledger" for the taking of another's unique life?

Contrast that with the case of Kirk Bloodsworth, also in Maryland, who was convicted and sentenced to death for rape and murder in 1985. Eight years later, DNA evidence proved his innocence and he was released. In Illinois, 12 people have been executed since 1977. But over that same time, 18 death-row inmates have been released after evidence proved they were innocent.

These examples prompt a deeper question. Notwithstanding the executions of the rightly convicted, can the death penalty ever be justified as public policy when it inherently necessitates the occasional taking of wrongly convicted, innocent life? In Maryland, since 1978, we have executed five people and set one convicted man free when his innocence was discovered. Are any of us willing to sacrifice a member of our own family -- wrongly convicted, sentenced and executed -- in order to secure the execution of five rightly convicted murders? And even if we were, could that public policy be called "just"? I do not believe it can.

But what about the deterrent value of the death penalty? Does the use of the death penalty -- while rarely, if ever, "just" -- save more innocent lives than it takes? The evidence indicates that it does not.

In 2005, the murder rate was 46 percent higher in states that had the death penalty than in states without it -- although they had been about the same in 1990. And while the murder rate has gone down across the board since 1990, it declined by 56 percent in states without the death penalty but only 38 percent in states that have it. It would appear that the death penalty is not a deterrent, but possibly an accelerant, to murder.

And what of the tremendous cost of pursuing capital punishment? In 2002, Judge Dale Cathell of the Maryland Court of Appeals wrote that, according to his research, processing and imprisoning a death penalty defendant "costs $400,000 over and above . . . a prisoner serving a life sentence." Given that 56 people have been sentenced to death in Maryland since 1978, our state has spent about $22.4 million more than the cost of life imprisonment. That's nearly $4.5 million "extra" for each of the five executions carried out. And so long as every American is presumed innocent until proven guilty, the cost of due process will not go down.

If, however, we were to replace the death penalty with life without parole, that $22.4 million could pay for 500 additional police officers or provide drug treatment for 10,000 of our addicted neighbors. Unlike the death penalty, these are investments that save lives and prevent violent crime. If we knew we could spare a member of our family from becoming a victim of violent crime by making this policy change, would we do it?

And if the death penalty as applied is inherently unjust and lacks a deterrent value, we are left to ask whether the value to society of partial retribution outweighs the cost of maintaining capital punishment. While I am mindful of and sensitive to the closure (and in some cases the comfort) that the death penalty brings to the unfathomable pain of families that have lost loved ones to violent crime, I believe that it does not.

Human dignity is the concept that leads brave individuals to sacrifice their lives for the lives of strangers. Human dignity is the universal truth that is the basis of ethics. Human dignity is the fundamental belief on which the laws of this state and this republic are founded. And absent a deterrent value, the damage done to the concept of human dignity by our conscious communal use of the death penalty is greater than the benefit of even a justly drawn retribution.

The writer, a Democrat, is governor of Maryland.

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