Sunday, 18 February 2007

Kill Maryland's Death Penalty

Kill Maryland's Death Penalty

Repeal Is the Only Solution to the Problems of an Inherently Flawed System

Sunday, February 18, 2007; Page B08

During my eight years as governor of Maryland, I never had to confront the hardest decision a governor can face: whether to allow an execution to proceed.

I am not sorry I missed such a life-or-death choice, although I feel certain I would have opted against execution.

Today, Maryland's lawmakers face their own life-or-death decision. I urge them to take the only logical path and put an end to Maryland's system of capital punishment.

I stand with Gov. Martin O'Malley in saying it's time to give up on this failed policy. My opinion is that executions demean us as a society. I also join with the majority of Marylanders who believe that on a practical level, the system is rife with problems that cannot be solved.

Let me address the main ones.

First, the death penalty is irreversible. For that reason, the process is longer and more complicated than for other punishments. Reversals, retrials and delays clog our courts and dominate the attention of law enforcement, weighing down our system in ways that actually impede public safety. Delays inevitably increase the pain for victims' families, who must relive their trauma over and over, waiting in limbo with every reversal.

This excessive time and energy also translate into dollars spent maintaining this complex system. One study found that it costs Texas an extra $2.3 million to prosecute a single death penalty case. Maryland's system is even more careful than Texas's -- meaning our costs are probably much higher. State and local funds are drained from far more effective public safety services -- additional police, better correctional facilities and more prison staff.

The legislation pending at the State House would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, a harsh punishment that would keep murderers off the street and keep us safe without undue burdens on law enforcement or victims' families.

I also remain deeply concerned about disparities in the imposition of the death penalty in our state. A University of Maryland study released in 2003 showed that both race and geography play a strong role in determining who lives and who dies. These kinds of disparities in Maryland's most visible punishment undermine the integrity of our entire criminal justice system.

Finally, and most important, we must acknowledge that in any human system there is room for error. Again and again, we hear about prisoners freed from death row after being exonerated of their alleged crimes -- at least 123 across the country in the past 34 years.

The story of Eastern Shoreman Kirk Bloodsworth should be chilling to all Marylanders. Mr. Bloodsworth was sentenced to death and spent nine years behind bars before being cleared of rape and murder through DNA testing. There is a real risk that the state will execute an innocent man or woman -- a risk we need not take. If anyone believes the solution to the system's excessive costs and time is to simply shorten appeals or streamline the system, Mr. Bloodsworth is a stark reminder that there are no shortcuts when it comes to due process and accuracy.

As the debate unfolds, I hope all 188 Maryland legislators will get the chance to talk with Vicki Schieber, a Chevy Chase resident whose 23-year-old daughter was murdered in Philadelphia in 1998.

Mrs. Schieber experienced firsthand what the death penalty system does to victims' families. Today, she is volunteering countless hours urging legislators in Annapolis to end executions in Maryland to ensure that no more families will have the pain of their losses compounded by the difficulties of capital punishment.

The issue is now before the legislature. To those lawmakers who have supported capital punishment in the past, please consider all that we have learned in recent years about how drastically it fails in practice. Around the country, Americans are moving away from the death penalty. A recent New Jersey commission recommended replacing the death penalty with life without parole because it simply could not come up with a way to make the system work both fairly and effectively.

It's time for Maryland to take heed and end capital punishment here.

-- Harry R. Hughes

Denton, Md.

The writer, a Democrat, was governor of Maryland from 1979 to 1987.

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