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Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, Key Testimony, August 19, 2008

Maryland Citizens Against State Executions has prepared the following summary of key witness testimony before the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment on August 19, 2008, in Annapolis. This hearing focused on the costs and length of the death penalty system.

Kathy Garcia has been a victims’ advocate and trauma expert for 25 years, working with thousands of family members who have lost a loved one to homicide. Ms. Garcia served as the victims’ advocate on the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, which found after six months of study that the death penalty is harmful to victims’ family members.

Ms. Garcia testified that the length of the process exacerbates the traumatizing impact of the criminal justice system, keeping family members trapped in a process that often last decades for a sentence that will likely never be carried out. She further testified that the practice of asking family members whether they want the death penalty in their case is also harmful, as it can divide families at the time they need each other most, and it places a weighty and emotional decision on them at their most vulnerable moments. She urged the commission to replace the death penalty with life without parole and to use the savings from repeal to increase funding for services to homicide survivors.

Surviving families need stability and consistency. They need to know that the punishment received will be carried out. The death penalty fails on both counts…I know survivors whose entire childhoods were lost waiting for an execution that never came. …This is not a question about whether some victims want the death penalty and others don’t. It’s about what the death penalty does to victims, regardless of how they feel.”

Lisa Delity, from Bowie, is the sister of Mike Miller, an FBI Special Agent killed in the line of duty in 1994 when a man entered his office and opened fire. Ms. Delity testified about pain of losing her brother to such a horrific crime. She then read a letter signed by nearly 50 Marylanders who had also lost loved ones to murder. The letter called for repeal of Maryland’s death penalty.

In one of the most powerful moments of the hearings to date, Ms. Delity invited other family members in the audience to stand behind her as she read the letter. Close to a dozen people stood up from around the room and walked to the podium, holding pictures of their murdered loved ones as she spoke.

Ginger Beale works for the University of Maryland at Baltimore and is the president of the Baltimore chapter of Mother’s In Charge, which works on violence prevention, intervention, and education in the city.

Her son Harold Robinson, Jr. was murdered on February 11, 2007 while working at his job as a security guard for a nightclub. She testified about her work with Mother’s In Charge and the need to eradicate violence in Baltimore. She also expressed the grief she has suffered and continues to suffer from her son’s death. She believes the suffering of the victim’s family is often not taken into account in the criminal justice system and that the death penalty should be eliminated.

I’ve been through six postponements for the trial of my son’s murderers and each time I go to court it hurts. What often gets lost in cases where someone is killed is the actual strain on the victim’s family. The focus turns to the criminal rather than the victim. That must stop. Cases such as my son’s murder are dynamic and are to not be treated with anything but the highest regard. It’s good to see that you are beginning the process to look at the surrounding issues of our criminal justice system.  Just keep in mind the major toll all of this takes on the families who lose a loved one to violence.”

John Roman is a researcher at the Urban Institute, a non-partisan research institute in Washington, D.C. In 2007, Mr. Roman completed a study of the costs of Maryland’s death penalty and found that the death penalty has cost the state more than $186 million over and above the costs of the system had life without parole been the highest punishment. Mr. Roman explained the study to the commission, including the findings that each death sentence costs $3 million – or $1.9 million more than a comparable case that does not end in the death penalty, even when the costs of incarceration are taken into account.

Cost study available at: http://abell.org/publications/detail.asp?ID=136

Andy Sonner was a state’s attorney for Montgomery County for nearly 30 years before becoming a judge for Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals. Judge Sonner testified that he tried diligently to apply the death penalty in a fair and rational manner during his three decades in office. He sought the death penalty half a dozen times and secured two death sentences as a prosecutor. Both death sentences were ultimately reversed.

Judge Sonner testified that his experience trying to apply the law convinced him that it was a waste of law enforcement resources and that it is impossible to create a death penalty that is evenly applied. He testified that prosecutors are influenced by a host of competing factors and pressures when determining which cases should be death cases, and that this creates arbitrariness in sentencing that simply cannot be reconciled with the need for consistency and fairness.

Our system invests an individual prosecutor with unfettered discretion to make that decision. I now believe that to do so rationally and fairly is beyond human capabilities. The time has come for Maryland to abandon a relic from earlier less sensitive times and free the prosecutors from the impossible task of trying to call for capital punishment fairly.”

Judy Catterton is a former prosecutor from Montgomery County and a defense attorney who has worked on several Maryland death penalty cases. Having seen the system from both sides, she testified about the difficulties of carrying out the death penalty as a prosecutor and making the rational determination about when to seek the death penalty. She also testified about the differences in some of the cases she defended and saw as a prosecutor. Comparing the first and last death case she worked on, she noted that there was no rationale explanation for why one of them resulted in a life sentence and the other in an execution.

Every lawyer knows in their heart of heart that there is no such thing as an error-free trial. As a prosecutor I tried hundreds or more cases. The chances are overwhelming that somewhere along the way I convicted an innocent man or made a mistake in the degree of a defendant’s involvement. In death cases we want a system that will be fair and error free. We can’t have it.”