Maryland's top American Civil Liberties Union official says proposed state legislation to escalate use of the death penalty and eliminate parole for defendants in aggravated murder cases is legally and socially "ludicrous" and was triggered by emotionalism surrounding the brutal slaying of Frostburg State College senior Stephanie Ann Roper.
"We need to dispassionately evaluate each murder case, rather than throw the body out to the neighbors . . . like Ayatollah Khomeini," said John Roemer, executive director of the Maryland ACLU.
Roemer's comments in a recent interview came as supporters of the Stephanie Roper Committee, a citizens group angered at life sentences given in the Roper slaying to two men who will be eligible for parole consideration in 12 to 15 years, are readying a package of bills for the state legislature when it meets in January. Among other things, the bills would:
* Add to the present list of "aggravating circumstances" a jury or judge may consider in recommending the death penalty any murder that was "especially heinous, atrocious, cruel, wanton, vile, horrible or inhuman . . . .
* Eliminate most cases of drug or alcohol intoxication by the defendant as a "mitigating circumstance" in murder cases.
* Permit as few as nine of the 12 jurors in a murder trial to recommend the death penalty, rather than a unanimous jury as now required.
* Limit a jury to recommending either the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole in cases where it finds one or more aggravating circumstances.
* Abolish the present state Parole Commission and replace it with an advisory "sentencing board" that would have power to recommend parole or early release to the governor in only "exceptional" cases. The governor would have final say in granting paroles.
"What we're trying to do," said state Sen. Howard Denis (R-Montgomery), one of several cosponsors of the legislation, "is to see that what happened in the Stephanie Roper murder will never happen again."
Roper, 22, was abducted, beaten, raped, burned and killed last April 3 in St. Mary's County. Two men were arrested later. One, Jack Ronald Jones, 26, was convicted of murder, rape and kidnaping. He escaped the state gas chamber, however, when the jury recommended life imprisonment, saying nine mitigating circumstances outweighed two aggravating circumstances.
The second defendant, Jerry Lee Beatty, 17, pleaded guilty to the slaying after cooperating with police and also received a life sentence. Beatty said both he and Jones had spent several hours consuming beer and drugs before they encountered Roper in a disabled car on a remote road in Prince George's County. He said they took her to an abandoned house in St. Mary's County where they beat, raped and killed her.
Under Maryland law, Beatty and Jones will be eligible for parole consideration in as few as 12 years.
"That's what we want to stop," said Kurt Wolfgang of the Stephanie Roper Committee, a law student who drafted much of the proposed legislation. He is the son of Del. John W. Wolfgang (D-Prince George's).
Roemer, however, said the legislation is loaded with emotional vengeance and would limit greatly the ability of juries and judges to evaluate cases on an individual basis.
The "death or life-without-parole" provision in aggravated murder cases and the elimination of alcohol and drug intoxication as a mitigating factor, for example, he said, "are ridiculous. Circumstances vary from case to case, and the sentences should vary also . . . .
"What about the 90-year-old man who commits a 'heinous and atrocious' murder? Or the kid who's committed his first offense? To say you hang or go to jail forever is terrible."
The legislation, Roemer said, "is going to get us into an idiotic word game over what's 'heinous' and what's 'atrocious' and so on . . . . This legislation just invites pandering to public outrage."
As for the proposal permitting nine of 12 jurors to impose a death penalty, Roemer said: "It strikes me as bizarre that it takes a unanimous jury to send somebody to jail but only a majority to kill him."
The "sentencing board" proposal, he said, would take parole-granting power away from the present "dispassionate members of the parole commission" and put it in the hands of the governor, a politically sensitive officeholder.
"Of course no governor is going to grant parole in a brutal or sensational murder unless he's a lame duck," Roemer said.
Roemer, who said he is opposed to capital punsishment under any circumstances, emphasized at the same time that he is "no bleeding heart."
"In my sour moments," he said, "I want to give 'em the ax, too . . . . The death penalty, let's face it: It's pure retribution. But we've got to walk that fine line between barbarism and civilization in determining punishments."