- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who seeks to abolish executions in his state on moral grounds, has defended other states' sentencing practices and backed Tennessee in overturning one Supreme Court ruling that limited prosecutors.
He has also sided with prosecutors in a U.S. Supreme Court death-penalty appeal relating to reading religious tracts to a South Carolina murder jury and has defended verdict options for Arizona jurors in another case.
Mr. Curran, a Democrat, did not respond to interview requests about why he so vigorously defended capital sentences elsewhere, given his thoughts on the death penalty.
But he told state prosecutors in a letter that he will not ease up on his efforts to uphold Maryland death-penalty cases "until there is a change in the law."
That phrase in his letter referred to his call for the General Assembly to make the maximum sentence life without parole so no innocent person could ever be executed.
"I will do nothing to impede the support that this office provides to you," Mr. Curran's letter to prosecutors pledged.
The Attorney General's Office defends death sentences at the U.S. Supreme Court and is scheduled to do so again at a hearing March 24. Mr. Curran's name appears on legal briefs, but he has not personally argued those cases. Mr. Curran has argued and won Supreme Court criminal appeals not related to the death penalty.
But Mr. Curran also joined amicus curiae briefs in his own name as a friend of the court in three out-of-state cases, involvement that is not required of any state attorney general.
Neither the South Carolina nor Arizona cases directly affected Maryland, but the Tennessee case resulted in the high court overturning its own 1987 ruling barring Maryland from reading victim-impact statements to the sentencing jury in efforts to obtain a death penalty.
Mr. Curran's office lost that case, Booth v. Maryland, but Mr. Curran persisted on the issue until Tennessee won the 6-3 Payne v. Tennessee ruling overturning the Booth decision June 27, 1991.
The Payne decision revived the right of states to present "victim-impact statements" to sentencing juries after the guilt phase of capital murder cases. The 5-4 Booth decision in 1987 said Maryland's practice violated the Eighth Amendment, which protects against "cruel and unusual punishment."
John Booth remains on death row after three resentencings for his role in the 1983 West Baltimore robbery-murders of his neighbors Irvin Bronstein, 78, and his wife, Rose Bronstein, 75.
The state also lost the only other capital case to reach the Supreme Court during Mr. Curran's terms.
In Mills v. Maryland, the 5-4 court decided in 1988 that jurors may have been confused on how to consider different mitigating factors that might bring mercy and allowed a resentencing hearing in which Ralph Mills got life for killing a cellmate while serving 30 years for another murder. That ruling led to vacating many other death sentences around the country.
The Booth case was argued by Deputy Attorney General Charles O. Monk II, now in private practice in Maryland.
Maryland Solicitor General Gary E. Bair, who is scheduled to argue for the state in Wiggins v. Smith on March 24, said Mr. Curran's announcement will not affect that argument nor have any effect on appearances to defend other convictions.
"I think really none. It really is a different issue. What we do now is consistent with office practice before he was attorney general," Mr. Bair said about the influence of Mr. Curran's political views on death-penalty appeals.
Mr. Bair declined to discuss the separate issue of how the attorney general decides to file amicus briefs in support of other states.
"A lot of factors go into whether to join an amicus brief. Some we join and some we don't," Mr. Bair said.

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