ANNAPOLIS – With 14 men currently serving death sentences, Maryland has a relatively small death-row population, compared with 60 in neighboring Virginia and 170 in Pennsylvania.
Nevertheless, Maryland criminals may face execution sooner. And with elected prosecutors more willing to seek capital punishment here, the ranks of the condemned may grow, experts say.
“The trend will probably continue and the number of executions will go up,” said Richard Dieter, director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. “There’s a real pressure on the system to be more aggressive.”
Effective Oct. 1, a new law cut the number of post- conviction appeal petitions from two to one and shortened the time a defendant has to file that petition. Officials estimated the time between sentencing and execution would drop from 11 years to about six.
Coupled with the new law is the growing sentiment — here and nationwide — toward tougher sanctions. Already this year, 44 men have been executed in the United States. The number is expected to approach 60 by December. As of Sept. 1, there were 3,028 prisoners serving death sentences across the country, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Within the last 10 days, more Maryland defendants were pushed closer to the death penalty. A Howard County jury voted Oct. 4 for a death sentence for Dennis Wade, convicted of killing two women in Severn in 1993. Two other counties are having hearings next week about whether defendants should be sentenced to die.
“There is an attitude out there which is placing the emphasis on moving ahead with these sentences,” Dieter said. “That’s part of what’s causing the effects in Maryland.”
Maryland has carried out only one execution, of John Thanos in 1994, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The state plans no more executions this year.
Officials said that Flint Gregory Hunt, who was convicted in the 1985 killing a Baltimore woman, would be the next prisoner to face execution, probably next spring.
The decision to seek the death penalty resides with each county’s state attorney’s office.
“They are the ones who see the facts of the crime and make the determination whether or not there are special circumstances that would warrant a death penalty sentence,” said Gary Bair of the Maryland attorney general’s office.
Montgomery County prosecutors Monday will try to convince a jury to hand down the death penalty against James Edward Perry, who was convicted last week in the murder-for-hire of a Silver Spring woman, her paraplegic son and his nurse.
“We reserve seeking the death penalty against the worst of the worst,” said Robert Dean, Montgomery County deputy state’s attorney. “We don’t seek it in every case, but when we do, we are committed to prosecuting it to the best of our ability.”
Dean has worked on the county’s last three death penalty cases, and said that his office chooses very carefully when to seek out that sentence. “We not only look at the nature of the crime but the likelihood of a jury returning a death penalty verdict,” he said.
Prosecutors say they are seeking out more death penalty cases in part because of the public mood. “The people have spoken and said that this is what they want,” Dean said. “Legislators have been given that mandate.”
That mandate has meant more work for the state Public Defender’s office, which represents many defendants accused in death-penalty cases.
Tom Saunders, chief of the Maryland public defender’s capital crime division, said prosecutors were seeking the death penalty more often. “What is happening is that the death penalty is such a hot political topic,” he said, “the result is that the number…will go up.”
But Saunders said he had not seen juries move more quickly to hand down death sentences. “The juries are still taking a great deal of consideration when they look at a case,” he said.
The amount of time and resources needed to complete a death sentence may be another reason for prosecutors to be selective, most officials say. Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center said that nationally, it costs an average $2.6 million to get a single prisoner executed.
Maryland officials earlier this year estimated it cost more than $600,000 to carry out the Thanos execution, the state’s first since 1961.
One reason for new laws to speed up the process is to save money. “Politicians are more willing to push these executions forward,” Dieter said.
But the sheer number of people on death row has contributed to the high number of executions, he said.
“This was inevitable,” Dieter said. “The appeals process has to end sometime … I think down the road, unless there is a new groundswell of opposition, you’ll see even more executions.” -30-