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Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, Key Testimony, September 5, 2008

Maryland Citizens Against State Executions has prepared the following summary of key witness testimony before the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment on September 5, 2008, in Annapolis. This hearing focused on the risk of executing an innocent person and the use of DNA to insure accuracy in capital cases.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, outlined problems with evidence used in criminal trials, including false confessions, fingerprints, bullet fragment analysis and DNA analysis. He noted that DNA evidence provides conclusive proof in only a small percentage of homicides, in the range of 10-15 percent. He urged the Commission to realize that such problems with seemingly reliable evidence can lead to the execution of an innocent person. “Indeed, because every one of us is human and all of us are actors in a fact-finding mission, if just one of us makes an error, jumps to a conclusion, or acts on a false assumption, an innocent man can be condemned to a guilty man’s fate,” Scheck said in prepared testimony.

Jennifer Thompson. Ms Thompson, a North Carolina resident, recounted the rape she suffered as a college student in 1984. Determined to remember her attacker’s appearance, she memorized his face. Eventually, she identified a man as her attacker and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Subsequent testing proved the man was innocent and another man was ultimately convicted of the rape. Ms Thompson went on to meet with the man whom she had mistakenly accused, as well as several other men who had been exonerated after being sentenced to death. The experiences led her to reverse herself and become a strong supporter of abolishing the death penalty as the only way to avoid executing an innocent person.

Kirk Bloodsworth, of Cambridge, Md., and a member of the Commission on Capital Punishment. Mr. Bloodsworth told about his arrest, conviction and sentence of death in the rape and murder of a young girl in Baltimore County. The conviction, based largely on eyewitness testimony, was upheld during a second trial. After nine years in prison, DNA testing showed that another man had committed the crime and Mr. Bloodsworth was released. “Two juries were wrong. Two judges were wrong. The state of Maryland was wrong,” Mr. Bloodsworth told the Commission. He also refuted the claim that his case proves the criminal justice system works to catch mistakes. “I am not here because the system worked,” he said. “I am here because a series of miracles happened.”

Glenn Ivey, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney, testified about how his service as State’s Attorney has convinced him, though a death penalty supporter, that Maryland should repeal it. The key reason, he said, was the toll that the drawn-out death penalty process takes on the family of a murder victim. Those surviving loved ones, he said, must sit through countless hearings and appeals, which serve to bring up memories of the crime. He pointed out that the widow of a murdered Prince George’s County police officer recently asked him not to seek the death penalty for his alleged killer, because she realized such a case would stretch out with no final resolution for many years.

Mr. Ivey also emphasized that capital cases put a significant resource strain on his office. And he said the Commission should consider the fact that the death penalty is applied in a racially disproportionate way.

Jonathan Gradess, Executive Director of the New York State Defender’s Association, testified about the cost of the death penalty. He said a recent analysis of the cost of the death penalty by Maryland done by the Urban Institute was one of the best such studies in the nation. That study estimated that death penalty cases had cost the state more than $186 million. He pointed out that the extra time and money spent on death penalty cases could be used for other criminal justice needs. “There is not a limitless supply of money,” he said.

Brian Forst, professor of Justice, Law and Society, American University, testified that his research had found little evidence that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to murder. “There is, in short, no convincing evidence that the death penalty deters homicide,” he said. “This had become clear by the mid-1980s, and it has been confirmed and re-confirmed in subsequent analyses.”

Ray Krone, Juan Melendez, Gordon “Randy” Steidl and Jonathan Hoffman, were each convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Each was later exonerated of the crime. The men described their stories and reminded the Commission that more than 125 people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death in America.

Michael Austin, of Baltimore, recounted how he was falsely convicted of a 1974 murder. A judge overturned his conviction in 2001 and he was eventually pardoned by Governor Ehrlich.