ANNAPOLIS – Maryland legislators are in engaged in a duel over the death penalty.
On one side, they are chipping away at capital punishment’s credibility by introducing legislation to address racial disparity in its application and calling for a moratorium on its use.
On the other, they use the death penalty as a deterrent to violent crime in legislation that would expand capital punishment.
“It’s certainly not going to go away, but it’s not something where you’ll see any substantive changes this term,” said Del. Michael Burns, R-Anne Arundel, who sponsored a bill to apply the death penalty to murders committed during a drug violation.
Since Maryland’s death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the state has executed only one man — John Thanos in 1994. Currently, there are 17 prisoners on the state’s death row.
At least 20 bills this session deal with the death penalty.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has recommended legislation that would renew a task force to study racial disparity in capital punishment and another allowing judges to instruct juries not to consider the race of the defendant or the victim in their deliberations.
These were measures recommended by Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s Task Force on the Fair Imposition of the Death Penalty, which disbanded in December. Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, D- Prince George’s, hopes this legislation and the results of the next task force will help phase out the death penalty in Maryland.
“The changes we [recommend] are not monumental,” Trotter said. “We didn’t recommend a moratorium. That’s a battle we couldn’t win. But the battle that we did win will keep this issue alive.”
At the same time, the Senate has passed bills that would allow the death penalty for crimes that involve violations of drug laws, the murder of a cab driver and for the accomplice to the murder of a police officer.
But, these bills must go to the House Judiciary Committee, which has already killed several similar House bills. Also before the committee is a House bill that would both renew the task force and issue a moratorium on the death penalty in Maryland.
Burns, a committee member, said the panel includes delegates with strong feelings either for or against capital punishment, and a couple of people in the middle. Until the committee’s composition changes, he doesn’t believe there will be any major changes to the capital punishment statute.
Advocates of capital punishment say their stance is shared by most Americans. But polling data on the subject can be read two ways.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti- capital punishment group based in Washington, D.C., 70 percent of Americans support the death penalty. But that support falls off to 41 percent when those surveyed are given an additional choice: life in prison without parole, coupled with restitution to the victims.
Both death penalty critics and proponents are concerned about racial disparity.
“Nationally, the studies have shown that you have more of a chance of getting the death penalty if you kill a white person,” said Rodney C. Warren, of the Maryland Public Defender’s Office, a member of the 1996 task force. “It appears that the race of the victim is usually more of a factor than race of a defendant.”
According to the report, 14 of Maryland’s death row inmates are black; three are white. Three are white men who murdered white victims. Nine are black men who murdered whites. Three black inmates were convicted of murdering other blacks. One black inmate had two victims, one black and one white.
Last month, the American Bar Association called for a moratorium on the death penalty because of inconsistent implementation nationwide. It has called for competent counsel for all defendants in capital cases, availability of federal court review of state prosecutions and efforts to eliminate racial discrimination in sentencing.
Meanwhile, international pressure is stepping up. Pope John Paul II has said that capital punishment is on par with murder. The International Commission of Juries, a worldwide association of legal professionals, said the death penalty in the United States was applied arbitrarily and was racially discriminatory.
“The death penalty is on it’s way out,” said Trotter, who also served on the 1996 task force. “Any time the American Bar Association comes out and asks you to halt all executions until you can make a more fair implementation of justice, then you know that’s the nail in the coffin.”
Others aren’t so sure.
Trotter’s assessment is “probably optimistic for the near future, but it’s something down the road,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
The bar association and the international concerns are causing state legislatures to look anew at their death penalty cases, he said. Maryland’s tug-of-war is happening throughout the country. Dieter added: “It’s not clear which sort of momentum is going to prevail.” -30-