- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

Like former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. took a bold step yesterday in calling for elimination of the death penalty in the Free State.
Citing the "fallibility" of the capital punishment system in Maryland, Mr. Curran urged the General Assembly to enact a bill to be introduced today by Sen. Sharon Grosfeld, Montgomery County Democrat that would outlaw the debatable and discriminatory practice.
Maryland is "at a critical juncture in the fractured history of the death penalty," Mr. Curran said, because seven death-row inmates face execution this year alone. The risk of killing one innocent person is "unworthy of us," and "fails to pass for justice in a civilized society."
Not all would agree, especially surviving family members of the victims of the heinous crimes. Still, Mr. Curran's proposal raises the heat on the issue of capital punishment.
With high-profile executions pending in each local jurisdiction, capital punishment throughout the region should be reviewed, revisited and possibly revamped.
Angela J. Davis, a former public defender in the District, teaches courses in criminal law, criminal procedure and a seminar on "Race, Crime and Politics" at American University's Washington College of Law. "It is shameful that some prosecutors in our local jurisdictions seem to be forging ahead with the death penalty despite overwhelming and alarming evidence of the many serious problems with its implementation," Ms. Davis said. "These problems should cause any society concerned about justice to join the rest of the civilized world and immediately stop a practice which has proven to be fatally flawed and, unfortunately, final."
In Maryland, a new Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and his lieutenant, Michael S. Steele, are at odds about reinstituting capital punishment after a two-year moratorium, even as a state judge clears the way for a March execution. It would be the first since the state-sponsored study at the University of Maryland demonstrated discrimination in capital punishment cases.
In the District, a federal jury next week will begin the punishment phase after the nine-month trial of a group that called itself Murder Inc. Leaders Kevin Gray, 31, and Rodney Moore, 37, could become the first defendants put to death in nearly half a century in the nation's capital.
Here the issues speak to home rule, or the lack of local autonomy. The majority of local residents are against capital punishment but have no sway over federal prosecutors, who oversee all criminal cases. As D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton once noted in a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, D.C. residents voted against the death penalty by a 2-1 margin in a 1992 referendum forced by Congress. Again under congressional pressure tied to the city's appropriation bills, the D.C. Council rejected the measure in 1997. The D.C. Code calls for life without parole as its harshest sentence. "At a time when states with better records are instituting death penalty moratoriums, we believe that the Department of Justice should not disregard local law against the application of the death penalty within our borders," Mrs. Norton wrote.
In Virginia, where capital punishment statutes continue to be refined because of new DNA evidence or improper jury selection, the issue of imposing the death penalty against a juvenile creates much consternation and conversation.
It is troublesome that after a feeding frenzy among prosecutors, the murder case of 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, charged with one of the killings in the outrageous October sniper spree, was moved to Virginia in large part because the state prides itself on "hanging 'em high." Juveniles are not spared. But the questions arising from the Malvo case should present a caution to cooler heads, given that this teenager was undeniably under the suspicious influence of a sinister adult, John Allen Muhammad, who deserves no mercy. Although the U.S. Supreme Court refused to rule on the issue of juvenile executions earlier this week, four justices have expressed their opposition to the death penalty for juveniles in their dissent in several other cases.
Ms. Davis said those justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer called the execution of juveniles "a relic from the past and … inconsistent with evolving standards of a decent society."
Once a staunch opponent of capital punishment for several reasons, I have re-evaluated my own position on occasion. However, my stance against killing juvenile offenders is unwavering.
Let's also be clear that no one is advocating leniency in calling for an end to what some deem a barbaric practice imposed by few nations. Convicted criminals must be punished swiftly and surely. Not surprisingly, some death-penalty proponents think that being sentenced to life without parole in prison is not punishment enough. The confinement alone would kill me or drive me crazy. Surprisingly, some of the inmates who were taken off death row in Illinois did not welcome the prospect of being reassigned to the larger, more dangerous inmate population. One said he'd rather be executed than spend the rest of his life in prison. That statement speaks volumes about hard, hapless time.
"Attorney General Curran and former Governor Ryan should be commended for having the courage to do what is right and just, rather than what they believe is politically expedient," Ms. Davis said. "We should require nothing less of those we put in positions of power."
No matter where you stand on the issue of capital punishment, it is our duty as members of "a civilized society" to express our views to support or scour elected officials like Mr. Curran when such issues as the death penalty are forced to the forefront.

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