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Wither the Death Penalty! First in 2011 — Illinois. Is Maryland Next?

Tanya Greene,
Advocacy and Policy Counsel,
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March 14, 2011

One more down, fewer to go! By taking the historic step of signing into law last week a repeal of the death penalty in Illinois, Gov. Patrick Quinn lent further momentum to efforts in other states across the country to abolish state-sanctioned killings.

Long plagued with flaws including the sentencing to death of 20 people who were later freed after being found to be innocent, racial bias, rampant legal errors and law enforcement, attorney and court misconduct and incompetence that besieged the capital prosecution system, Illinois’ death penalty system had to go.

This latest addition to the abolition collective of states — joining most recent inductees, New Mexico in 2009 and New Jersey in 2007 — brings the total number of states who refuse to kill their own citizens to 16. (Note: the efforts to reinstate the death penalty in New Mexico and West Virginia have failed so far this year.)

Currently, strong abolition campaigns in Connecticut, Maryland and Montana may have further positive results for all people who care about justice.

Take Maryland for instance, where the state’s House Judiciary Committee tomorrow will hold a hearing on a bill that would repeal the death penalty in the state. A similar bill has been introduced in the Maryland state Senate. Both bills enjoy strong bipartisan support, with the house bill having been introduced with 60 original cosponsors and the Senate bill with 20 original cosponsors. Repeal is supported by Gov. Martin O’Malley, and advocacy groups from across the political spectrum include the ACLU of Maryland, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Maryland Catholic Conference, Murder Victims Families for Human Rights, National Black Police Association and the Maryland League of Women Voters.

The current bill would replace the death penalty with a sentence of permanent imprisonment for a convicted murderer. Certainly locking a human being in a box away from family and society for the rest of their natural life is a sufficiently severe punishment for a killer. And if there ever is a mistake made, it can be fixed.

Over the past 10 years, the murder rate in Maryland has been decreasing. The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment found that the costs associated with cases in which a death sentence is sought are substantially higher than the costs associated with cases in which a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is sought. Just one prosecution resulting in the death penalty costs the state about $3 million, almost $2 million more per case than the life-without-parole alternative.

In 2008, legislators, the governor and advocates joined the commission in its conclusions that to reduce these unnecessary costs, eliminate racial bias, lessen the misery that capital prosecutions force victims’ family members to endure and eliminate the risk that another innocent person may be convicted and sentenced to die, capital punishment in Maryland must be abolished.

As in Illinois, none of the flaws cited in the report have been remedied, so the choice remains repeal.

The commission also found that there is no persuasive evidence that the death penalty deters crime. In fact, numerous law enforcement agencies around the country have agreed with that finding for many years — statistics show that states with the death penalty continue to have the highest rates of violent crime.

And the system is racist. All five of Maryland’s current death row prisoners were convicted of murdering white victims. The victims of all five men who have been executed since 1976 were also white. Yet 80 percent of Maryland murder victims are black.

Maryland also has the dubious honor of having the first DNA exoneree freed from a state’s death row. In 1993, Kirk Bloodsworth, convicted of a rape and murder he didn’t commit was exonerated. Repealing the death penalty would guarantee for all the people of Maryland that the state will no longer run the risk of executing innocent people.

The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment found that despite the advance of forensic sciences, particularly DNA testing, the risk of execution of an innocent person remains a real possibility. No human system is foolproof — do we want to spend millions of taxpayer dollars per case and still not be 100 percent sure we got it right? A human system should have an alternative — permanent imprisonment is that alternative.

Maryland isn’t the only state considering abolishing the death penalty. Abolition and repeal bills have been proposed so far this year in seven more state legislatures as well — Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Texas, and Washington. Other states considering moratorium/study commission bills include Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas. Still other states are considering various ways to restrict the use of capital punishment, including Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Contact the ACLU affiliates in these states to get involved.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice . . .” Justice got a tiny bit closer last week with the Illinois abolition success. Is Maryland next?

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)