OPINION: Studying The Death Penalty

By Maryland Senator Roy Dyson (D-29th)

During the next several months, I will be writing about legislation approved and rejected by the 2008 General Assembly and other issues of importance to Marylanders.

For the fourth time in the past 15 years, the General Assembly approved legislation to create a state commission to study and provide an assessment of the death penalty's merits and costs.

In 1993, the Governor's Commission on the Death Penalty concluded that racial disparity in the death penalty was "a legitimate concern." In 1996, the Governor's Task Force on the Fair Imposition of Capital Punishment concluded that the racial disparity in the death penalty "remains a cause of concern" that can requires further study.

In 2000, a University of Maryland study was approved by the General Assembly. It concluded, in 2003, that the race of the offender did not have a significant impact on the process, but that the jurisdiction where the murder was prosecuted was relevant because some county State's Attorneys asked for the death penalty more frequently.

In January 2008, an Abell Foundation study revealed that the long appeals process brings the cost of the death penalty to $186 million, at least three times greater than the state would have spent to imprison for life those convicted of first degree murder.

Ever since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, opponents of the penalty have been trying and failing to repeal it. Failure to repeal the death penalty often resulted in the creation of another commission to do another death penalty study. That is what happened during the recent 2008 session. Frankly, I think the death penalty has been studied and studied beyond a reasonable degree.

This newest study is modeled after the New Jersey study group and will include legislators, state officials, religious leaders, a prosecutor, public defender, police chief, correctional guard, a family member of a murder victim and a former prisoner who was later exonerated of the crime for which he served time. Obviously, the composition of this group is heavily weighted toward abolishing the death penalty. The New Jersey study led to that state abolishing the death penalty last year.

At the center of the latest effort to abolish the death penalty is the question of lethal injections. Lawyers for inmates have contended that the fatal doses of three drugs used in lethal injections, if administered improperly, can cause a painful death. In April, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled 7-3 that lethal injection executions do not violate the Fifth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court's decision has no direct impact on Maryland's current de facto death penalty moratorium. The moratorium has been in effect since 2006 when the State's highest court ruled that the state's procedures for lethal injections had not been properly administered. For executions to resume, Governor O'Malley would have to issue new regulations. On May 22, eighteen months after the Maryland court ruling, the Governor ordered the drafting of new procedures for executing inmates by lethal injection.

Marylanders are almost evenly divided on the death penalty. According to a January 2008 poll, 48% of Marylanders believe that the appropriate penalty for first degree murder is life in prison without possibility of parole, while 42% believe that the death penalty for first degree murder is more appropriate. Whether one is for or against the death penalty, most people believe that the matter has been mired down in one study after another.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, Maryland has executed 5 murderers. Today, five inmates are on death row.

The truth of the matter is that it can take up to 20 years before a murderer sentenced to death is actually executed. The vast majority of death penalty sentences are eventually reversed in the long and expensive appeals process. The sad fact is that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment for victims' families. These families are forced to endure years of trials and legal procedures which replay the murder of their loved one and almost never end in the murder's execution. These families face the cruel fact that they cannot obtain closure on their tragedy for years.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said, "if there is any deterrent effect to the death penalty, there isn't one if there aren't any executions." I couldn't agree more.

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