Md. Attorney General Says Death Penalty Bill Needs to Be Changed
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) said yesterday that although he supports the aims of a high-profile bill to tighten evidence in death penalty cases, it was constructed in a "clumsy" way and should be reworked or abandoned -- a development that could complicate passage of a compromise that the governor has reluctantly come to support.
The bill, which passed the Senate two weeks ago, appears to be gaining momentum in the House of Delegates, where Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is expected to give his endorsement at a hearing today. O'Malley unsuccessfully sought a full repeal of the death penalty this session.
Under the evidence bill, capital cases would be restricted to those with biological or DNA evidence, a videotape linking the defendant to the slaying or a videotaped confession. A Washington Post review of charging documents in five cases in which the death penalty is being pursued indicates that it is unclear how many would meet those standards.
"The idea is to move away from putting people to death who were wrongly convicted," said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), the bill's chief architect.
Gansler, a former Montgomery County state's attorney who supports capital punishment, said the bill places "somewhat curious" restrictions on evidence that would make a case eligible for death. As it is written, he said, qualifying evidence would not include ballistics, fingerprints, multiple photographs showing a crime in progress or a signed confession.
Changing the bill in the House would send it back to the Senate, however, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has said that the chamber has finished debating the death penalty this year. Leading repeal advocates in the House are urging their colleagues to pass the bill without any amendments.
As debate moves to the House, death penalty supporters are expected to sharply question the bill's implications. House Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington) said the types of evidence required for capital punishment are rarely present in contract killings, for example.
Although the bill was drafted to apply only to future cases, lawmakers are likely to examine past cases to see how the evidence standards would work.
In 2006, for example, two inmates were charged with fatally stabbing a correctional officer at the state prison in Jessup. When other officers began searching the area, they saw inmate Lamar C. Harris washing clothes in his cell and found other garments and shoes with what were believed to be bloodstains, according to court documents. Nearby, in the cell of inmate Lee Stephens, officers found a white T-shirt and a pair of boots, each with bloodstains, according to the court documents.
Whether prosecutors in the case would be able to satisfy the bill's biological evidence requirement is impossible to say for certain. Stephens is scheduled to go on trial in September. The case against Harris, however, is on hold after he was ruled incompetent to stand trial.
The other three cases in which the death penalty is being pursued would not appear to provide the same level of biological evidence, if any, based on the charging documents. It is possible that prosecutors have evidence that was not outlined in the documents, however.
One case probably would prompt debate about whether a video recording "conclusively links" the defendant to the killing.
The evidence against Juvon C. Harris, accused of gunning a man down in July 2007 outside a Baltimore County nightclub, included a purported eyewitness and a shell casing recovered at the scene that matched the gun that Harris had on him when he was arrested.
A surveillance video also showed someone believed to be the shooter running and entering a car. The car tag was registered to Harris, and Harris was in the same car when he was arrested. It does not appear that the shooting itself was caught on video, however, and there is no mention in the charging documents of biological evidence or of any videotaped confession.
In another case, Douglas W. Pryor, a Washington County man, was charged in late 2007 with stabbing to death a former girlfriend and fatally shooting a police officer.
Pryor's sister-in-law told police that Pryor said he was going "to kill this cop," and a friend said he later admitted to having "just shot a cop." But nothing in the charging documents indicates that Pryor would be eligible for death under the proposed new rules.
Alfonso Johnson, serving a life sentence imposed in Prince George's County for sex offenses, is accused of killing his cellmate in March 2008 at Western Correctional Institution.
The autopsy indicated strangulation, and Maryland State Police investigated the death as a homicide. Johnson was indicted in October. News reports do not mention any video recording of the death or of any interrogation, nor do the news reports mention DNA or other biological evidence.