ANNAPOLIS – As the legislature nears a vote on repealing the death penalty, capital punishment proponents are raising questions about the fate of the five inmates currently on Maryland’s death row.
Specifically, they want to know the fate of three inmates sentenced to death in the early 1980’s, when life without parole was not on the books.
Gov. Martin O’Malley’s bill would not take effect until October and is not retroactive. If the death penalty is repealed, legal experts and politicians have differing opinions on what will happen to the three inmates: Anthony Grandison, Vernon Lee Evans and John Booth-El.
When the three were sentenced, serving a life sentence meant parole was a possibility after 15 or 25 years. Life without parole was not adopted until 1987.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a capital punishment supporter, thinks there’s a possibility these death row inmates could go free.
“I believe, legally, the governor could commute their sentence. But I have a grave concern about whether he could commute a sentence to an individual of life without parole when that sentence didn’t exist when they were convicted. I think that would be subjected to legal challenge,” Shellenberger said.
Evans and Grandison were sentenced in connection with the shooting deaths of David S. Piechowicz and his sister-in-law, Susan Kennedy, in 1984. Grandison hired Evans to kill two witnesses, Piechowicz and his wife, in a federal narcotics case against Grandison. Kennedy was mistaken for Piechowicz’s wife.
Booth-El is on death row for robbing and fatally stabbing an elderly couple in 1983.
“If they’re given simple life the way this statute worked back then they would’ve been eligible for parole after 15 years,” Shellenberger said. “So they’d immediately be eligible for parole and these are a number of individuals who committed some very heinous crimes. And I think that would be a very, very dangerous thing to do.”
Shellenberger isn’t the only one raising questions about the fate of the men waiting for execution. At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, a death penalty supporter, asked the governor what would happen to the current inmates on death row.
O’Malley said the cases would be reviewed individually.
“I think it would be inappropriate to comment on them beyond that either collectively or individually,” O’Malley said.
That response did not satisfy Brochin, who said he will vote against repeal.
“And if he really believes that you know the death penalty should be repealed, the logical thing to me would be that he would just commute their sentences, and yet his response was well I’m gonna look at them on a case by case basis. Well, does that mean you believe in execution and they should be executed or not? And if not why don’t you just commute their sentences?” Brochin later said.
Some capital punishment opponents, like Katy O’Donnell, think these cases highlight a broken system. O’Donnell is the chief attorney of the aggravated homicide division in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.
O’Donnell’s worked in the aggravated homicide division for 22 years. She said the bill does not address the inmates already sentenced.
“At this point I do not believe that the bill addresses what happens to the individuals who are actually on death row at this time,” O’Donnell said. “This bill is aimed progressively, prospectively at looking at future cases.”
Byron Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, thinks there’s a simple solution: address the death row inmates in the same repeal legislation.
But if the bill remains silent, the death penalty would stand for the individuals already on death row, Warnken said. The governor could still commute the sentences to life without parole because it does not worsen the inmates’ sentences of death, and if that is challenged he could let the death penalty stand.
Even in the scenario where the inmates get life, Warnken said the possibility of parole is extremely unlikely. Since 1995, no inmate serving a life sentence has received parole, Warnken said.
“I don’t think there’s any way in heck any of those five people would ever, ever be even seriously looked at for parole. Much less get parole,” Warnken said.
The Maryland Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.
O’Malley tried to ban capital punishment during his first term, but the bill failed to make it out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. This time around, his bill appears to have more support.
There are 25 affirmative votes in the Senate, enough to pass the bill in that chamber. Maryland would be the 18th state to abolish capital punishment if the bill is signed into law.
Connecticut became the most recent state to repeal the death penalty last year. New Mexico did the same in 2009.
Neither bill was retroactive, leaving 11 people on death row in Connecticut and two people on death row in New Mexico, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The inmates in New Mexico have death penalty appeals pending, with attorneys pursuing the argument that because the death penalty was repealed, it would now violate the constitutional protection of cruel and unusual punishment, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007. That legislation included current and future death row inmates, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Two of those inmates were sentenced before life without parole was a punishment, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Corrections said.
Inmates would have had their sentences reduced to the prior punishment. To avoid that, the governor commuted their sentences before signing the bill, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.