Panel Calls for Abolition of Death Penalty

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008

A high-profile panel appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley recommended last night abolishing Maryland's death penalty, concluding that the state's system of capital punishment is too costly and vulnerable to wrongful convictions and fails as a deterrent to crime to be sustainable.

The 13 to 7 vote capped four months of testimony, statistics and debate as the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment considered an issue that has roiled passions in the state in recent years.

Maryland, which has executed five men since reinstating capital punishment in the 1970s, has had an effective moratorium since 2006, when its high court ruled that procedures for lethal injection had not been properly adopted. Five inmates are on death row.

The commission, which includes prosecutors, lawmakers, clergy, law enforcement officials, a former death row inmate and family members of murder victims, did not weigh moral arguments as it reached its conclusion. The path was more pragmatic: Is capital punishment good public policy?

"I don't have a firm opinion on the morality of the death penalty," said Benjamin R. Civiletti, who served as attorney general under President Jimmy Carter (D) and was tapped by O'Malley (D) last summer to lead the panel. But he said he opposed execution for "pragmatic" reasons, among them that "it's haphazard in how it is applied."

The commission's supporters of capital punishment said that although they agreed with many of the conclusions, they were not sufficient to require abolition.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Schellenberger, for example, said that geographical disparities exist in how the death penalty is carried out but that they should be allowed.

"I believe fundamentally there's nothing wrong with that," he said. "Essentially, it's a local option."

The repeal recommendation will be the basis of a 110-page report presented to O'Malley, who opposes the death penalty, and state lawmakers next month.

The conclusion will probably strengthen the governor's case for abolishing executions but is far from certain to resolve the dispute. Attempts at repeal have failed by a single vote in a Senate committee in recent years.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor "looks forward" to considering the report.

Yesterday's decision came after large majorities on the commission concluded that key features of Maryland's system of executions were flawed.

Among them: More prosecutors are likely to seek execution, and juries to sentence people to death row, when whites are killed. And the jurisdiction where someone is tried plays a huge role in whether prosecutors will seek to execute them.

For example, prosecutors in Baltimore County were about 13 times more likely to pursue the death penalty as those in the city of Baltimore, about five times more likely as those in Montgomery County and twice as likely as prosecutors in Prince George's County, according to a 2004 study presented to the commission.

The panel also agreed that a death penalty case costs about $1.9 million more than a similar case in which prosecutors seek life in prison. The long appeals process is emotional torture for victims' facilities, and the threat of execution is not a deterrent to crime, the commission concluded. And it found that although DNA testing works, it is not available to everyone and does not eliminate the risk that an innocent person could die because of mistakes in processing.

Some of those conclusions were disputed by some death penalty supporters on the panel. Their dissents will be contained in a minority report.

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