Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Will the most heinous murderers face the death penalty? The Maryland state Senate’s vote as early as today could well decide not only the fate of these criminals, but also the fate of their would-be victims.

With a murder rate of 9.8 per 100,000 people in 2007 (the most recent complete year available from FBI reports), Maryland had the second highest state murder rate in the nation. This tragedy is largely due to Baltimore’s outrageously high murder rate, a city that Martin O’Malley ran before becoming governor. Given O’Malley’s failure in Baltimore, his newest proposals should expect some skepticism.

Maryland’s death penalty was re-enacted in 1978, and while the U.S. murder rate fell dramatically from 8.8 to 5.6 from then to 2007, Maryland’s murder rate over the same period actually rose - going from 8.0 to 9.8. It is hardly a coincidence that only five convicted murderers have been executed in Maryland since 1978 - that is just five out of 13,947 murders. On the other side of the Potomac, the murder rate in Virginia, where capital punishment is enforced much more often, fell even faster than the national rate, dropping from 9.0 to 5.3.

Fortunately, O’Malley’s reforms have met some resistance from even liberal Maryland’s legislature. In 2007, his last repeal bill died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, and last year the issue was not even considered. Just last Friday, the panel rejected O’Malley’s 2009 repeal bill.

But the battle isn’t over. The governor has persuaded Senate President Mike Miller (a fellow Democrat who supports the death penalty) to ignore the committee action and still bring the measure to the floor for a vote.

In preparation for this year’s session, the governor stacked the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment - a group he helped create last year to make recommendations - with a reliably anti-death penalty majority. Some of the panel’s arguments against the death penalty were downright absurd, such as the notion that offenders sentenced to life without parole “pose minimal risk to correctional officers and other inmates.” That’s an insult to the family of correctional officer David McGuinn, murdered by inmates serving life sentences at the Maryland House of Correction, or the family of inmate Philip Parker. Parker, who was murdered on a prison bus by Kevin Johns, an inmate double-murderer already serving a life sentence for strangling his cellmate and his uncle.

But O’Malley’s intransigence and the general unwillingness to use the death penalty have a real cost: the lost lives of innocent victims.

Possibly the weakest part of the commission’s report was its unwillingness to consider the massive empirical research done by academics. For example, research by economists overwhelmingly shows that the death penalty saves lives. The published peer-reviewed research over the last decade that examined how the murder rates in states changed as they changed their execution rate found that each execution saved the lives of roughly 15 to 18 potential murder victims. Overall, the rise in executions during the 1990s accounted for about 12 to 14 percent of the overall large drop in murders during that time.

There is no question that any of the five men currently on death row - Anthony Grandison, Vernon Evans, John Booth-el, Heath Burch, or Jody Miles - is guilty of the murders each was convicted of. Grandison, Evans and Booth-el have each been on death row for nearly a quarter-century, Grandison and Evans for two drug-related contract killings and Booth-el for slaughtering two elderly neighbors after breaking into their home.

Nor is there any evidence that innocent individuals have actually been executed in the U.S. Pointing out that a couple hundred violent criminals out of millions were wrongly convicted over decades is not the same thing as saying that an innocent person was executed.

Gov. O’Malley and elements of the General Assembly should stop the self-righteous political posturing and abandon the attempts to eliminate the death penalty law. O’Malley won’t stop either the posturing or the attempts, of course, but the General Assembly has a chance, perhaps today, to show better judgment. The real crime has been the unwillingness of Maryland to lower the incidences of innocent victims being murdered by carrying out capital punishment.

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