State Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery), reacting to a U.S. Supreme Court decision last week banning statements by victims' families in death sentencing proceedings, said he will introduce a bill in the 1988 Maryland legislative session to allow similar statements during parole proceedings.
Denis said he decided to introduce the bill as a response to the Supreme Court decision that struck down a 1982 Maryland law that Denis cosponsored.
Denis tried to get a similar measure on parole proceedings passed in the 1987 session, and although it passed the Senate, it failed in a House of Delegates committee. Denis said he plans to make some modifications to the bill in hopes of winning passage next year.
The Supreme Court ruling affected a law that provided for the use of "victim-impact statements" in capital cases during sentencing proceedings. The court's decision makes convicted killer John Booth, who had been sentenced to death, eligible for new sentencing hearings. Booth, was found guilty of the 1983 murders of Irvin and Rose Bronstein, an elderly Baltimore couple who were bound, gagged and stabbed to death during a robbery at their home.
After the jury convicted Booth, the prosecutors, arguing that the crime's effect on the family was relevant to sentencing, read a statement that included comments from the Bronsteins' children and grandchildren.
The court ruling created some confusion in Maryland over the fate of several death row inmates and will force the review of some cases. It also raised strong protests from victims' rights groups, such as the Stephanie Roper Committee, which has staged increasingly successful campaigns in recent years to toughen sentencing procedures.
Maryland Deputy Attorney General Charles O. Monk, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said the ruling throws into question the sentencings of six to eight of the 18 persons on the state's death row. He said those cases will be reviewed to determine whether new sentencing proceedings are necessary.
Monk noted that reversals of the death sentences are not automatic. Such decisions, he said, would rest not only on whether victim-impact statements were used at sentencing, but also whether the defense attorney properly objected to introduction of those comments so that he could then appeal their use.
Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner said his office will review the case of James Arthur Calhoun, who was sentenced to death for the 1981 murders of a county police officer and a security guard. Sonner said he did not know whether family statements were a part of the sentencing proceedings in that case.
Monk and other prosecutors said it is significant that the court, in its analysis accompanying the ruling, did not extend the case to "noncapital cases."
He said the Supreme Court noted how "emotionally charged" statements are used differently in capital cases in Maryland, because a jury must decide on the sentence. That process is unlike other cases in Maryland in which a judge sets the sentence.
Thirty-six jurisdictions allow victim-impact statements in capital cases, Monk said.
"The court kept the ruling narrow because they realize just how different death penalty cases must be treated," Monk said.
Sonner said that without use of the statements, "I don't think juries will be able to make a better decision."
Denis called the ruling "narrowly drawn," allowing for victims to "continue to assert their rights in many areas."
"They easily could have gone a lot further and barred victim-impact statements in other cases as well, but they intentionally limited the ruling to death penalty cases," Denis said.
Denis' bill would allow the family to submit a written statement informing those involved in parole proceedings of the effects of the crime on the family and advising their feelings about granting parole.
Monk said he does not believe the Supreme Court decision will make prosecutors more hesitant to seek the death penalty, because they "choose if a case is death penalty worthy on how strong the evidence is of the crime itself, rather than on whether a victim-impact statement will help" to sentence the defendant.
The court's decision was "a crushing blow" to victims' rights advocates, said Roberta Roper, a founder of the Stephanie Roper Committee. Roper, the person most closely identified with victims' rights efforts in Maryland, started the movement after the brutal rape and murder of her 22-year-old daughter.
"Without victims and families, there is no successful prosecution. We're critical to them," Roper said. "They are trying to make the process unemotional and sterile. It isn't, because the crime isn't."
Despite the court ruling, Denis said he is convinced that the public believes victims' families should be more involved in the judicial process "even if in some cases it is at the end of the process -- before the criminal is released."