- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2008

A high-level state commission formally recommended Friday that Maryland abolish the death penalty, citing racial and regional disparities, a lack of effective deterrent, and the fact that capital cases are far costlier to prosecute.

The report by the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment argues that the death penalty is harder on the families of murder victims than prosecutions that seek life in prison because of the many appeals in the process. It also says that despite advances in forensic science, including DNA evidence, “the risk of execution of an innocent person is a real possibility.”

The commission found “no persuasive evidence that the death penalty deters homicides in Maryland.”

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The commission’s final report now goes to the General Assembly, which created the panel during the 2008 session. The General Assembly meets for the start of the 2009 session on Jan. 14.

Previous legislative efforts to ban the death penalty have stalled in a Senate committee in recent years. But Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said she believes the political climate may have changed.

“I believe that the chances [of a death-penalty repeal] are better now,” she said. “I am taking the senators at their word that they will make this a priority.”

The commission argued that the state could save money by abolishing the death penalty, calculating that about $186 million could have been saved between 1978 and 1999 by seeking life sentences with no possibility of parole.

“The cost of pursuing a capital case is estimated conservatively to be at least three times the cost of a non-death-penalty homicide prosecution ($1.1 million to $2.9 million),” the report says. The money saved could be spent elsewhere in the law enforcement system or used to prevent violent crime and increase services to victims’ families.

The commission also said the likelihood of a capital prosecution being brought differs “alarmingly” among the state’s counties and cities, even when the circumstances are similar.

Baltimore County prosecutors seek death sentences about 13 times more frequently than Baltimore City prosecutors, according to the report. Baltimore County is five times more likely to seek the death penalty than Montgomery County.

But a minority report signed by eight of the commission’s 23 members says Maryland rarely uses the death penalty, and that principles of local rule should allow prosecutors to seek capital punishment in horrific murder cases.

The commission held five public hearings, taking testimony from specialists and members of the public, plus five additional meetings in which the testimony and evidence presented to the commission were discussed and later voted upon. The commission voted 13-9 last month in favor of abolishing the death penalty in Maryland.

“After hearing from many experts and families who have had the misfortune of going through the process of capital punishment, I am confident that we have examined every angle and come to the conclusion that best serves our fellow Marylanders,” said Benjamin R. Civiletti, chairman of the commission.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, a Catholic and a death-penalty opponent, said he understands the sensitive nature of the issue and “that this is a very personal issue for members of the General Assembly, families of victims, law enforcement and the public, but it is my hope that we can all take the time to review the facts presented in this report thoroughly and with an open mind.”

Maryland is among 36 states that allow capital punishment, and it has five inmates currently on death row. Maryland has carried out two executions since 2000: one in 2004 and another in 2005.

The death penalty is administered by lethal injection in Maryland, but its application was barred by the Maryland Court of Appeals in 2006 until the state submits procedures that are approved by a legislative committee.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April in a Kentucky case that lethal injection does not violate the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment, prompting Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine to lift that state’s moratorium immediately.

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