- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

COLLEGE PARK — With the decision last week by the state’s highest court to overturn the death sentence of a man who killed an 8-year-old girl in Harford County, the number of condemned inmates in Maryland shrank to five, a sharp drop from just six years ago.

Since 2000, at least 20 persons have spent time on the state’s death row, but through a combination of court decisions voiding death sentences, families leery of continuing long legal battles, two executions and one inmate death from cancer, the death-row population has dwindled.

Only five inmates have been executed since Maryland reinstated the death penalty in 1978, most recently Wesley Baker in December. By comparison, Virginia has executed 94 persons since it adopted the death penalty in 1982.

Some prosecutors say the lengthy appellate process and narrow circumstances under which they can seek death sentences in Maryland limit the law’s application and make it difficult for victims’ families who often see an execution as a measure of closure.

“It is incredibly difficult to sustain a death-penalty conviction in Maryland,” said Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas F. Gansler.

However, death penalty opponents say the limited use of Maryland’s death penalty law and the numerous cases in which appeals courts have overturned sentences expose the weaknesses of what they say is an unnecessary punishment.

The number of death sentences nationwide has dropped by 50 percent since the late 1990s, and executions were down by 40 percent since 1999, according to a 2004 report by the D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which is opposed to capital punishment.

At the beginning of 2000, 15 inmates faced death sentences in Maryland, and another five were condemned to death over the next several years. But 12 men have had their sentences overturned since 2000.

Defendants have challenged their sentences on different grounds, from arguing that they were poorly represented at trial to being sentenced by a judge instead of a jury. Others have raised questions about their sentences because of a 2003 University of Maryland study that suggests race and geography factor in capital punishment.

One of the five still facing possible execution, Vernon Evans, recently was granted a last-minute stay of execution so the Maryland Court of Appeals can hear in May his claims that his sentence for a 1983 double killing in Pikesville was unfairly imposed.

The Court of Appeals last week ordered a new sentencing hearing for Jamaal Abeokuto, who was convicted of slitting the throat of 8-year-old Marciana Ringo in 2002. Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly said he hopes to persuade the appeals court to reconsider his case, but he hasn’t yet decided on whether to seek a death sentence again if that fails.

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