Vol. 10, No. 20

May 16-22, 2002

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The Death Penalty Stands on Shaky Ground

Maryland’s death penalty is in the news these days because Gov. Parris Glendening suspended it for the remaining months of his term pending a study on racial and geographic bias in how it’s carried out.

Such action takes courage. Most Americans support the death penalty — 65 percent according to a recent ABC News poll. One of that number is our esteemed columnist Bill Burton, as he notes elsewhere in this issue.

Yet politicians are increasingly showing the will to go against popular opinion on the death penalty.
A year ago, Maryland’s House passed a moratorium bill that died in the Senate. About 70 cities have passed non-binding resolutions calling for death penalty moratoriums. Two other states — New Hampshire and Nebraska — recently passed such bills, both later vetoed by their governors.

It may take a lame-duck politician to succeed in reviewing the death penalty at the state level — as Glendening has done, making Maryland the second state to impose such a moratorium.

The first state was Illinois, where another lame-duck governor, George Ryan, determined that people were being wrongly sentenced to death. (We know more than a little about Illinois and its death penalty. We were Illinoisans before coming to Chesapeake Country nearly two decades ago. In fact, we have walked through the bowels of Death Row in Illinois, once at the behest of an editor demanding that we interview a mass murderer labeled the most vicious criminal in Illinois history. That editor didn’t think we’d get the interview, but that is a story for another day.)

Which explains why people whose first job is to get elected would take such political risks: They’ve reached reasonable doubt that the ultimate penalty may be administered neither justly nor accurately.

Unlike Parris Glendening, George Ryan is no liberal. That law-and-order Republican put the death penalty on hold in Illinois only after journalists and crusaders proved that his state was on the verge of putting innocent people to death. Indeed, 13 people sentenced to die in Illinois later were exonerated of their crimes.

There’s a key difference between the actions in Maryland and Illinois. In Illinois, new evidence — some gathered through technology not available at the time of conviction — proved that juries and judges had indeed been mistaken.

In Maryland, Glendening acted because of potential injustices that relate primarily to race. (Still, as The Washington Post documented in investigations in Prince Georges County, innocence does not assure not-guilty verdicts in Maryland any more than it did in Illinois.)

In our minds, that is a sobering proposition that must be considered on many levels before a civilized society proceeds with the ultimate punishment.

Maryland and Illinois are doing the right thing in ending executions until they’re sure we’re not committing murder.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly