BROOKLANDVILLE — Facing off for the first time in a debate, both candidates for Maryland attorney general voiced support for the death penalty while attacking each other’s enthusiasm for carrying it out.
In a candidate forum sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council Wednesday evening, Scott L. Rolle, the Republican candidate, criticized his Democratic opponent, Douglas F. Gansler, because Gansler has never filed for the death penalty in his eight years as Montgomery County state’s attorney.
Rolle, who has been the Frederick County state’s attorney since 1994, has asked for the death penalty three times, but all three offenders were given life without parole.
Gansler said he had not asked for capital punishment because in the only death penalty-eligible cases he had, the defendant agreed to plead guilty and receive life without parole to avoid putting the victim’s family through a lengthy trial.
“Deciding to seek the death penalty is a weighty decision,” Gansler told about 50 audience members at suburban Baltimore’s Park School. “I’m not sure it’s something most people would go around bragging about.”
But Rolle said in an interview after the debate that he feels voters “need to look very closely at someone who says they support [the death penalty,] but has never put those words into action.”
Gansler said at the debate he supports capital punishment in “the most heinous of crimes. People who commit those crimes have forfeited their right to walk on this planet.”
Since Maryland reinstituted the death penalty in 1976, five people have been executed. Under Maryland law, first-degree murder is a capital crime.
At the debate, Rolle reminded the audience of Gansler’s most controversial decision involving capital punishment – his decision not to seek the death penalty against John Allen Muhammad, the so-called Beltway sniper.
With an accomplice, Muhammad was accused of killing 10 people in Maryland and Virginia, including six people in Montgomery County, in 2002.
Muhammad was tried first in Virginia, where he was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death. He was extradited to Maryland and convicted of six counts of first-degree murder in a Montgomery County court this year.
Gansler said under Maryland law, the defendant must have killed multiple times in the “same incident” to receive the death penalty. Because Muhammad’s victims were killed at different times, he is not death penalty eligible.
The candidates agreed that part of the law is a loophole that should be closed.
Gansler also argued there was no point in trying for the death penalty in the sniper case because the defendant had already been sentenced to death in Virginia. Death penalty trials are more expensive because they require expert witnesses who have to be paid by the hour, he said.
Rolle said in an interview he would have left the sniper case up to Virginia prosecutors, and it was pointless to bring the trial to Maryland. Gansler said he tried the case in Maryland because the families of six victims in Montgomery County had not yet had their day in court.
“He murdered six people in our jurisdiction,” Gansler said. “It is my job as head prosecutor to try people in the places the crimes were committed.”
The two argued over how much it cost to conduct the two-week trial in Maryland.
Gansler said the whole trial cost only $2,000 because the prosecutors, sheriffs and judge were on salary. Muhammad represented himself.
Rolle said he agreed with the Montgomery County sheriff, who pegged the cost at $750,000. Gansler called that number “made-up.” “There is no way you could run a more fiscally frugal office than we do in Montgomery County,” Gansler said in a later interview.