STEVEN HOWARD OKEN went to his death last week in Maryland -- the first execution in the state in six years, the first as well since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) lifted his processor's moratorium on executions.
Mr. Oken was as good a candidate for capital punishment as the criminal justice system typically coughs up. He was a triple murderer who went on a rampage in 1987. There was no question about his guilt. And the issue he was litigating to stave off his execution -- whether the manner in which Maryland carries out lethal injection is too painful -- seems as morbid as it is unimportant. If the state may lawfully strap someone to a gurney and inject him full of poison, after all, the specific cocktail of chemicals it uses seems rather beside the point. Yet Mr. Oken's death and the state's resumption of executions ought to be the occasion for some reflection: What exactly did Maryland accomplish by killing him?
Unlike Virginia, where capital punishment is a relatively routine event, Maryland doesn't put many people to death. Mr. Oken is only the fourth since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Even if one believes that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime, it is implausible that one invoked so rarely would do so. Nor can the state truly claim that justice -- in some abstract sense -- is aided by its occasional use of the death penalty. For as a University of Maryland study showed last year, the state's death penalty is so unevenly applied that similar crimes simply do not yield comparable punishments. Specifically, prosecutors in Baltimore County are far more likely than those elsewhere to seek death, and murderers whose victims are white are far more likely to face capital charges than those who kill non-whites. The most powerful message the state's death penalty sends is one of randomness: that certain crimes will arbitrarily be singled out for harsher punishment than others.
About the only good that Maryland's death penalty clearly yields is a sense of justice in the families of victims and, to a less intense degree, in other citizens. That sense was much on display after Mr. Oken's death, and we don't mean in any sense to belittle the satisfaction that an execution may bring to these families. But it seems to us a satisfaction bought at an unacceptably steep price. For the death penalty is not merely an irreversible penalty, unevenly applied and fraught with grave danger of error. It involves the state in the premeditated killing of an individual long since prevented from doing further harm to society. Even when that individual's guilt is clear, that killing is still wrong -- and the power to carry it out is more power than any state should have.