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Will Maryland follow Illinois's lead and abolish the death penalty?

By Editorial

Thursday, March 10, 2011; 7:51 PM

ILLINOIS THIS WEEK became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty. Maryland should become the 17th.

Capital punishment is a barbaric tool that ill serves the state and its residents. The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which conducted a comprehensive study in 2008, concluded that the penalty has little deterrent effect and that the extended legal proceedings add to the anguish felt by the victim's family. Seeking the death penalty inflates by millions of dollars the expenses to process these complicated cases - millions that the financially strapped state can ill afford. Capital punishment is applied inconsistently across the state, and prosecutors are more likely to pursue a death sentence if the victim is white.

As a practical matter, capital punishment has not been an important or commonly used tool for law enforcement officials in Maryland. The state has executed only five prisoners since the 1970s, and only five inmates sit on death row today. Since 1974, when the death penalty was reinstated nationwide, some 140 prisoners have been exonerated, including Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent nearly nine years on Maryland's death row before DNA evidence proved he was not guilty of a murder.

Changes in Maryland law in 2009 have made it more difficult for prosecutors to seek the death penalty by, for example, prohibiting capital charges in cases that lack DNA or biological evidence and requiring videotaped evidence of a suspect's alleged confession before it may be admitted in court. This was undoubtedly a step forward, but it's no substitute for abolition.

After narrowly failing two years ago to repeal capital punishment, the legislature is again poised to tackle the issue. The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up a repeal bill sponsored by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore).

There is reason for hope. Mr. Rosenberg says he has commitments from 71 delegates and 24 senators who support the measure - enough votes to carry the day if the measures reach the floor of the respective chambers. Legislators should be given the chance to vote and send the long-overdue repeal to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has said he would sign it.

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