By KELLY WILSON, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (March 7, 2008) - For the second year in a row, opponents are trying to get Maryland's death penalty overturned in the legislature.
If passed, the law would commute the sentences of the state's five inmates awaiting execution to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
At a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing Thursday, proponents of the bill said it would help the families of murder victims by shortening trials and would also save the state money. But opponents said the bill would lead to shorter criminal sentences across the board and more violence among inmates.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, failed in committee last year despite supporting testimony from Gov. Martin O'Malley.
This year's version has 15 senate co-sponsors, including Sen. Jamin Raskin, D-Montgomery, who is sponsoring another bill to form a commission to study the state's death penalty and alternatives to it. Last year's bill to repeal the death penalty had 12 senate co-sponsors.
Raskin said his bill, heard by the same committee Thursday, was intended to provide for further study of Maryland's capital punishment system if the death penalty is not repealed by passage of Gladden's proposal.
In a poll conducted by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies in January, 48 percent of those surveyed said the appropriate punishment for someone convicted of first-degree murder would be life in prison without the possibility of parole, compared to 42 percent who said the better sentence would be death.
Since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, Maryland has executed five people.
Many of those testifying for the bill were former death penalty supporters whose minds were changed after a loved one was killed and survivors had to go through years of trials and appeals.
Kathy Garcia, a resident of New Jersey, where the death penalty was repealed in December, said she would have benefited more from support and counseling after her nephew was killed. She called the death penalty system a "colossal failure" at helping victims' families.
Bonnita Spikes, a member of the same panel of witnesses, said the money that goes into supporting the death penalty would be better spent helping families recover from losses, like the one she suffered when her husband was killed almost 14 years ago.
"Instead of wasting tax dollars for a handful of executions we could use that money for survivor support," she said.
The bill would also save money for the state by eliminating costs that since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978 have been estimated at $186 million, said representatives of the Urban Institute.
But opponents of the bill said the savings would not make up for the deterrent effect of capital punishment that would be lost under the law. They also said a repeal would mean more violence in prison among inmates already serving life sentences, since that would be the state's toughest penalty.
In opposition to the bill, Scott Shellenberger of the Baltimore County state's attorney's office argued that the study's estimation of the cost of the death penalty was too high. Salaries for lawyers, judges and others associated with death penalty cases would be constant whether Maryland continues the death penalty or not, he said.
Shellenberger said eliminating the state's strongest penalty would shift all sentences down as defense attorneys try to downgrade clients' penalties from a level many would be pleased with now.
"I do believe that we would see fewer life without parole sentences," he said.
Members of the Maryland State Fraternal Order of Police also testified in opposition to the bill because the organization holds that killing an officer must be punishable by death.