OPINION: Death Penalty Restricted

By State Senator Roy Dyson (D-29th)

Maryland is one of 36 states with a death penalty. This year, legislation to repeal the death penalty is being considered in Maryland and seven other states - Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Washington.

In Maryland, 53% of the people support the death penalty. I have always opposed the repeal of the death penalty in Maryland.

The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, established by the 2008 General Assembly, is the fourth time in the past 15 years that a study of the death penalty was ordered by the Legislature. Two of the studies found that racial disparity in the death penalty existed and continued to exist. The third study found that there was geographic as well as racial disparity. None of these studies recommended that Maryland keep or repeal the death penalty. The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment voted 13 to 9 to abolish capital punishment.

The reasons for abolishment cited by the Commission included: the racial and geographic disparities that exist…the costliness of death penalty appeals process…the toll the long process takes on survivors…the lack of persuasive evidence that the risk of execution is a deterrent to crime…and the unavailability of DNA evidence in some cases opens the real possibility of wrongly executing an innocent person.

In 2008, the Department of Corrections informed that the average annual cost of maintaining a death penalty inmate is about $46,810, compared to about $39,316 for a maximum security inmate. Since 1978, five convicted murderers have been executed. There are now five inmates on death row. The length of time on death row varies. However, three of the current death row inmates have been there over 20 years. There is no way to precisely determine if and when any of the five death sentences might be carried out due to the lengthy appeals process. The three death row inmates executed in the 1990s were there 12, 10 and 4 years. In 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.

This year, the Judicial Proceedings Committee, once again, rejected the death penalty repeal bill, despite the fact that the Governor strongly supported it. In an unusual move, the Senate voted to bring the bill to the floor for a full senate vote.

As an opponent of death penalty repeal, I was going to cast my vote against the bill. But three crucial amendments to the bill were approved to restrict the use of the death penalty and nearly abolish the chance of executing an innocent person. The amendments prohibit death sentences based solely on eyewitness testimony and require either DNA or a videotaped confession or a videotaping of the crime.

The Innocence Institute, which investigates wrongful convictions, revealed that of 38 cases in which wrongfully convicted persons were exonerated through DNA evidence, 2/3 of the original convictions were based on eyewitness testimony. In one case, five separate witnesses wrongly identified the defendant. In a 1992 study by Loftus and Doyle recorded verdicts in a mock trial. With no eyewitness identification, 18% of the jury verdicts were guilty. With eyewitness testimony, the guilty verdicts rose to 72%. Several studies found that juries tend to base their decision on a confident eyewitness even when other factors, such as poor visibility or bias, question the validity.

DNA has propelled the criminal investigation process light years ahead of where it was. In 1993, Kirk Bloodsworth of Maryland was the first person on death row to be found innocent by DNA evidence. Bloodsworth was wrongly convicted in 1985 of the rape and murder of a 9-year old child. He always claimed he was innocent. DNA proved it.

In the heart of most people, including this Senator, who supports the death penalty, is the nagging fear of executing an innocent person. The three amendments added to the repeal bill keep the death penalty law, but significantly limit its use and the chances of executing the wrong person. To me, the bill with the amendments was legislation I could support. I voted for the amended death penalty bill.

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