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Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, Key Testimony, September 22, 2008

Joseph D. Tydings. Mr. Tydings a former federal prosecutor, state delegate, defense attorney and U.S. senator from Maryland, testified about the high cost of maintaining an adequate capital punishment system. While a death penalty supporter, he argued that the system has made many mistakes, with 130 people being exonerated after being sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. “The system we have now is flawed,” he said. To ensure against executing an innocent person, the state must invest far more in lawyers and other components of the criminal justice system. “I don’t know how much it will cost but you have to do that if you want to protect innocent people,” Mr. Tydings said. He concluded that the state’s financial problems should preclude new spending on reforms needed to improve the capital punishment system. “We don’t have the type of resources to do that,” Mr. Tydings said.

James Abbott, chief of police, West Orange, N.J., and member of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission. Mr. Abbott testified that he was a strong supporter of the death penalty until he served on the New Jersey study commission. He concluded that his state should abolish it after hearing from family members of murder victims, who described the prolonged time it takes to conclude a death penalty case and the emotional stress it causes as loved ones wait for cases to be resolved. “The reality is that there is no closure in capital cases, just more attention to the murderer and less to the victim,” he told the Commission. He added that if he were to be murdered, he would not want his wife and children to have to go through the death penalty process. “I would want to know that the person who did it was behind bars for life and that my family had the services they needed to heal and the financial support they needed to live without further sacrifice,” he testified. In conclusion, Mr Abbott said, “I learned you can still support the death penalty and also support getting rid of it.”

Patrick Kent, chief of the forensic division, Office of the Public Defender in Maryland. Mr. Kent presented an overview of problems with physical evidence used in both capital and non-capital cases. He reviewed problems with the Baltimore City DNA lab, which led recently to the firing of the lab’s director, and the history a Baltimore County crime lab serologist who misrepresented evidence and a state firearms expert, who committed suicide after it was discovered he had fabricated his credentials and offered inaccurate testimony. He also reviewed a series of capital cases in which seemingly reliable scientific testimony was later overturned to prove the innocence of the defendant. He stressed that mistakes are inevitable in any system, which can not be tolerated in death penalty cases. “You can take perfect science but it will always be in the hands of imperfect people,” Mr. Kent said. “

Donald Zaremba, deputy district public defender, Baltimore County. Mr. Zaremba reviewed the strain that death penalty cases place on the workload of his office. He said with state resources already strained, it is unlikely that new funding will be available to improve the criminal justice system. “I hope due consideration is given to the realities of defending these extraordinary cases within a framework of a system that struggles to manage just the ordinary,” he said in prepared testimony.

Kenneth R. Stanton, research associate, Jacob France Institute, University of Baltimore and associate professor of finance and economics, Coppin State University. Dr. Stanton offered a review of a recent study by the Urban Institute that concluded that the death penalty had cost the state at least $186 million over two decades ending in 1999. He said the methodology used in the study was sound and likely underestimated the real costs to the state. Dr. Stanton also made clear that the death penalty was using resources that could be used in other ways in the criminal justice system. He noted that the expensive system had led to only five executions. “Economists call this a complete waste,” he said.

Rev. Dr. John R. Deckenback, conference minister, Central Atlantic Conference, United Church of Christ, Baltimore. Rev. Deckenback urged the Commission to consider the theological arguments against the death penalty. “We believe the state of Maryland should not be in the practice of death,” he said.

Rev. Dr. Peter K. Nord, executive presbyter, Presbytery of Baltimore, Presbyterian Church USA. Rev. Nord stressed the need to offer the chance for redemption to prisoners, along with suitable punishment. “There is no justification for taking lives,” he said. “We are a religion of second chances.”

Cary J. Hansel III, defense attorney. Mr. Hansell stressed the risk of police generating false confessions in capital cases and reviewed several Maryland cases in which false confessions were given. “Innocent people can and do go to jail in Maryland for death penalty offenses,” he told the Commission. “Applying an irreversible penalty against innocent people is not morally acceptable.”

Calvin Lightfoot, former Maryland secretary of public safety and correctional services. Mr. Lightfoot, who has more than 45 years of experience in corrections, stressed that prison managers do not need the death penalty to maintain order and urged the Commission to abolish capital punishment. He said the savings gleaned from ending capital punishment could be better used to provide adequate staffing and training to correctional officers.

Robert Johnson, professor, School of Public Affairs, American University. Dr. Johnson, an expert in prisons and sentencing, told the Commission that the death penalty is not required to maintain safe prisons. He said prison officials can use the threat of sending prisoners to super-maximum-security facilities or isolation cells to maintain order.

Jane Henderson, executive director, Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. Ms Henderson highlighted key testimony from the Commission’s five hearings, focusing on the cost of the death penalty, the real risk of executing innocents and the disservice the system does to victims’ family members. “The evidence is overwhelming. The death penalty has failed the people of Maryland on every count – and myth after myth about the death penalty has been shattered in this hearing room,” she told the Commission.