Maryland gubernatorial candidate Harry J. McGuirk proposed yesterday that Maryland begin using the death penalty for persons convicted of manufacturing and financing the sale of heroin.
McGuirk, a state senator from Baltimore who is challenging Gov. Harry Hughes in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, said he believes the death penalty is an effective deterrent to criminal behavior and that Maryland's death penalty statute should be expanded.
"It drug abuse has affected the will, the conscience, the soul and the future of this country. I think this would be a deterrent," McGuirk said, adding, "I've never had any problem with the death penalty. [But] I don't think it should be indiscriminately given to every person."
McGuirk, who is considered a long-shot in the governor's race, said during an interview that if he wins election, one of the top priorities of his first year would be to introduce legislation to expand the state's dealth penalty law.
He conceded, however, that such a measure would likely have difficulty getting passed in the General Assembly.
Maryland enacted a death penalty statute in 1978 with McGuirk among those voting in its favor. The statute applies only to certain cases of first degree murder, such as killing an on-duty police officer, a child during a kidnap attempt or a victim during a robbery, arson or rape.
State Assistant Attorney General Deborah Handel said yesterday that Maryland has 12 persons on death row but that any executions are years away because they are being appealed.
Currently the maximum penalty for manufacturing or distributing heroin, or for possessing it for the purpose of manufacturing or distributing, is 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. A second conviction carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years.
Handel said she thought increasing the penalties to include capital punishment would be unconstitutional since the Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is acceptable only in cases where there was a murder or the intent to murder.
"It seems a little extreme," she said.
Until recently one state, Colorado, had a death penalty that included certain drug offenses, but that part of the statute was repealed a year ago for constitutional reasons, according to Colorado assistant attorney general David Rees.
Hughes, during his tenure as a state senator, voted against death penalty legislation and recently said he does not believe it has any effect on the crime rate.
"From everything I have ever been told or seen or read, no one has ever presented any evidence that it is a deterrent," Hughes said. " Studies have shown that the crime situation in states that did not have the death penalty were no worse that in states that did."
The leading Republican in the governor's race, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert A. Pascal, has said he supports Maryland's death penalty.
McGuirk, who make his remarks during a discussion yesterday at The Washington Post, said he thought up the idea of using the death penalty for heroin convictions only a few weeks ago, when a friend produced a study that tied 70 percent of Maryland's crime to heroin and drug abuse.
While McGuirk acknowledged that the death penalty has not been proven to be a deterrent to murder, he said he thought it would be different for persons dealing in heroin. "Most of the death-penalty crimes involved people who are not involved in committing crimes where they're conscious of the penalties. But drug dealing and manufacturing people know what they're doing," he said.
McGuirk, who doesn't smoke or drink, said he also supports increasing penalties for other drug offenses, with the exception of the penalties for marijuana use. Those penalties, he said, are "suitable for today," adding that he believes the use of marijuana doesn't necessarily lead to harder drugs.