Skip to main content

Report may put final nail in death penalty

Dan Rodricks, Baltimore Sun

December 16, 2008
In the report from the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, the people of this state and their elected representatives have all the evidence needed to abolish the death penalty, once and for all, in the next session of the General Assembly.

But even more than that, the report presents the state with a chance to reform its criminal justice system by diverting funds from the costly and ineffective death penalty into law enforcement, juvenile intervention, medical therapies and educational and vocational services for inmates - things that, unlike capital punishment, might actually do some good.

In its report, the commission concludes that, over the past 30 years, the death penalty in Maryland has been expensive and ineffective, riddled with error and tainted with racial and geographic disparities beyond reform. It should be abolished.

The commission arrived at that recommendation after careful review of research into the familiar points of debate - the alleged biases that make the administration of the death penalty unfair, the costs of death sentences over life without parole, the benefits of executions to the state.

Former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti chaired the commission. He joined with the majority in voting to recommend abolition.

The final vote was 13-9, with one abstention. That's a solid majority, to be sure. But far more revealing - and damning - was the commission vote on what, in the minds of many, is the first and last question when it comes to the death penalty: Has its application been affected by racial bias?

By a vote of 20-1, members of the commission said yes - while there is no evidence of intentional discrimination, racial disparities exist when the race of the defendant and the race of the victim are taken into account.

Studies of more than 1,300 "death-eligible" homicide cases from 1978 to 1999 revealed that killers of white victims were 2 1/2 times more likely to face the death penalty than killers of African-Americans.

One of the studies found that, in all cases that ended with death sentences since 1978, none of the victims was African-American, though 43 percent of death-eligible cases during that period involved African-American victims. Seventy percent of the cases resulting in the death penalty involved African-American killers of white victims, though that racial combination constituted only 23 percent of all death-eligible cases in Maryland.

"The death penalty, in many ways, reflects our criminal justice system's ultimate authority," Bryan Stevenson, who has represented death row inmates in the South, told the commission in July. "That ultimate authority comes with an ultimate responsibility, and if [we] don't exercise that responsibility fairly, reliably, in a non-racially discriminatory manner, the implications for this broader story about race and the criminal justice system get larger."

Experts told the commission that the amount of discretion in the process - from a given prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty to the decision by judge or jury to sentence a defendant to death - makes capital cases particularly vulnerable to bias.

Similarly, the commission voted 20-1 in agreement that another bias has been evident in the application of the death penalty here: geography and jurisdiction. Where someone kills another determines whether prosecutors seek the ultimate punishment.

"The fact that similar capital offenses perpetrated by similar offenders are treated so differently depending on where the crimes are committed renders the administration of capital punishment irretrievably inconsistent, non-uniform and therefore unfair in Maryland," the commission concluded. "The problem of jurisdictional disparities ... is evidently so deep as to confound any efforts at reform that the Commission can conceive."

The commission also looked at the cost of doing the executioner's business here and found that state expenditures associated with capital cases, from jury selection through appeals, are "substantially higher" than those in which the sentence is life without parole. The Urban Institute figured capital cases cost us about $186 million from 1978 through 1999. While some commission members and other experts disagreed with the methods for calculating this, "every Maryland attorney who testified before the Commission acknowledged that capital cases are more expensive and exploit more resources than non-capital cases," the report said.

And what do we have to show for the past 30 years of the death penalty in Maryland? Not much.

There have been 77 death sentences. There have been five executions, two commutations and three natural deaths. There are five defendants on death row at a cost to the state of $68,000 a year each.

That leaves 62 cases that have been reversed. "The significant expenditure of time and resources that the state of Maryland has put into its capital punishment system has resulted in only five executions and an error rate of 80 percent," the report said. "There are other areas in the Maryland criminal justice system where such resources could be applied and significant results could be expected."

You think? We still have a system that prefers costly imprisonment to progressive, crime-preventing interventions, particularly among at-risk kids. We still incarcerate far too many drug addicts who need medical treatment, not punishment. We don't give offenders nearly enough in the way of rehabilitative services; we just send them through the prison's revolving door. The report of the Civiletti commission gives the General Assembly an opportunity to abolish the death penalty, swollen with costs and infested with bias, and to channel resources into making streets safer, stemming violence, protecting at-risk kids, freeing communities from career criminals, providing treatment-on-demand for the drug addicts and reducing recidivism.

For the Senate and the House of Delegates to do otherwise, in the face of this report, would constitute dereliction of legislative duty at best, intellectual dishonesty at least, and immoral surrender to political concerns at worst.