ANNAPOLIS – Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., said Thursday he wants to abolish the death penalty because the risk of executing the innocent is too great, and the penalty’s application is plagued with bias.
In a letter to Gov. Robert Ehrlich, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and members of the General Assembly, Curran appealed for change to the state’s ultimate sanction.
“Capital punishment forces us to accept the unacceptable – the inevitability of an irreversible mistake that results in an innocent person’s death,” Curran wrote.
An alternative to the death penalty would be life without parole, a shift Curran claimed would allow for the system to correct any possible mistakes.
“There is one pivotal difference between death in prison and the death penalty. That is reversibility,” Curran said. “It is a terrible injustice to wrongfully incarcerate an innocent person.”
Since 1973, 103 people have been exonerated and released from death row nationwide. There has been an average of five exonerations per year over the last 10 years, Curran’s figures show.
The Attorney General also backed a proposal by Sen. Sharon Grosfeld, D- Montgomery, to abolish the death penalty, which is expected to be submitted Friday.
“Senators and delegates will understand that we are talking about a criminal justice system that makes mistakes,” Grosfeld said. “(Abolition) demonstrates the recognition that there can be problems, and knowing that, we want to give the system the opportunity to correct them.”
Grosfeld’s legislation is unlikely to affect those currently sentenced to death, she said.
Curran said he spoke up now because seven of the 12 men on Maryland’s death row have exhausted all appeals and could, technically, be executed at any time.
Delegate Salima S. Marriott, D-Baltimore, also an execution opponent, has a back-up plan. She will re-submit an amended version of her most recent death penalty moratorium emergency bill, she said.
“This is a real new Legislature, and I think for Joe Curran to make this statement is an act of courage,” Marriott said. “This is the most appropriate time.”
This is not the first time abolition legislation has come up. Supporters attached an abolition provision to 2001 death penalty moratorium legislation.
By 2002, Maryland became the second state to impose a moratorium on executions. That embargo was lifted after Judge John G. Turnbull II signed Steven H. Oken’s death warrant on Jan. 27.
Oken was convicted in 1991 for the 1987 murder of Dawn Marie Garvin, then a newlywed from White Marsh. Oken is scheduled to die the week of March 17, making him the first Maryland inmate to be put to death since 1998.
Death penalty supporters, too, are gearing up for a legislative battle.
Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford introduced a bill Monday to require the state to seek the death penalty for all first-degree murder cases.
The bill, dubbed “Dawn’s Law” in memory of Garvin, is in response to geographical disparities in the state’s ultimate penalty revealed by a recent University of Maryland study.
“I think the system now as we know it is wrong. I think there should be a standard for pursuing (the death penalty) in capital crimes,” Jacobs said. “I wouldn’t consider this a mandate . . . it would be that the law would have to be enforced.”
The two-year study examined nearly 6,000 homicide prosecutions from 1978 to 1999 and found that death-eligible defendants in Baltimore County are significantly more likely to receive a death sentence than defendants in Baltimore City.
The difference between the way the death penalty is pursued between the two counties boils down to differences between prosecutors who are asking for it, Jacobs argued.
The death penalty can be a crime deterrent said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester, provided its enforcement is consistent.
“In Baltimore City where there is almost a murder everyday, the city does not use the death penalty,” Colburn said. “Basically, you can get away with murder in Baltimore City. But, people know that if they take someone’s life in Baltimore County they have a strong chance of facing the death penalty.”
Making sure the death penalty stays on the books is something Fred Romano will never stop fighting for. Romano, Garvin’s brother and founder – with his wife Vicki – of the Maryland Coalition for State Executions, is excited about “Dawn’s Law” and hopes it passes.
“I’m not going to get my hopes up, but I’d love to see (the bill) go though,” Romano said. “To me it would be the answer to any racial or geographical disparity. The victim didn’t ask to be murdered.”
The Romanos approached Jacobs with the idea for a bill to make the death penalty stick nearly a year and a half ago.
“I’m glad that there are people out there who stand up for what they believe is right,” Jacobs said of the Romanos. “And this one is for Dawn.” -30- CNS-1