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Greg Bloom

Maryland’s death penalty under official review

We know a lot more about the death penalty today than we did ten years ago. As a result of new evidence and dramatic advances in DNA testing, states across the country are re-examing their death penalty systems and asking if the death penalty in practice is the policy they hoped it would be in theory. This week, Maryland became the most recent state to do just that.

Maryland has been grappling with the death penalty’s flaws for several years. A state study of race and the death penalty in 2003 revealed significant disparities in the system, but a lack of meaningful policy change in their wake meant the findings were essentially ignored. This inaction had a galvanizing impact and more and more Marylanders are now calling for a complete repeal. The call was bolstered last year when the non-partisan Urban Institute released a study that estimated that Maryland has spent $186 million on it’s death penalty system. The study found that each capital case costs $1.9 million more than comparable non-death penalty murder cases (including the cost of long-term incarceration).

In light of these revelations, the Maryland legislature created the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which passed with overwhelming and bi-partisan support. The Commission will study all aspects of the death penalty and make recommendations to the legislature in a final report due December 15.

The Commission includes a police chief, a rabbi, a bishop, three family members of murder victims, a man who was exonerated from death row by DNA evidence, several legislators and a current and former prosecutor, among others. That might sound like a setup to a tortured joke, but it also happens to represent a broad array of perspectives from all sides of the issue.

The Commission kicked off with a packed room of concerned citizens and a powerful slate of witness and expert testimony. (Full copies of key testimony are available at the Maryland Citizens Against State Executions web site.) The first two hearings focused on disparities in capital sentencing, including racial, jurisdictional, and socio-economic disparities. University of Maryland criminologist Raymond Paternoster testified about his 2003 study, which found “tremendous variability” in rates of death sentencing from county to county. Commissioners debated the reasons behind the statistics and asked whether the number of executions in Maryland is too small to draw any conclusions. Paternoster summed up his research for the commission by saying, “My study shows that the system by which you get down to those three executions is tainted by race and geography.” An elementary look at the numbers bears this out: none of the people who have been executed or are currently on death row in Maryland were convicted for killing a black person.

But amid all the data, it was a pair of stories that has drawn most of the attention of the commission, the audience, and the press. David Kaczynski, brother of the Unabomber, testified about his brother’s mental illness, about his own struggle with bringing his brother to justice, and about the privileged resources that made possible the successful plea of insanity that spared Theodore Kaczynski’s life. By way of a sad, stark contrast, Bill Babbitt told the story about how he also turned his brother, Manny, into the authorities. But Manny Babbit was an African American who never graduated sixth grade; while suffering from a flashback to his time in Vietnam, he had lashed out at an elderly person and the victim died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.

Both men were sentenced by an all-white jury. The Unabomber, whose carefully orchestrated acts of terror killed three people and maimed more than twenty others, was sentenced to life without parole; Manny Babbitt was executed in 1999, on his 50th birthday.

“It’s hard to make sense of the fact that my brother, a mentally ill man, was sentenced to death,” concluded Babbitt, “while other defendants in the same county, convicted of all sorts of cold-blooded murders, got life.”

The hearings continued on Tuesday, with testimony that focused on socio-economic disparities. Several defense lawyers cautioned that Maryland’s system would completely fail if the state didn’t add significant resources to public defense. Attorneys spoke of having to forgo paychecks while defending people facing the death penalty and experts who refused to testify in cases because the compensation was so low. The most powerful moment of the hearing may have been when the Commission heard from two family members of murder victims who testified about the system’s “hidden” socio-economic disparity. Surviving families with resources can secure grief counseling and other support services in the aftermath of murder, but most murder victims in Maryland come from poor families who are just struggling to make ends meet one day at a time. Services for these families are sorely lacking, and the resources to heal are wholly absent in these cases.

The Commission has two more hearings scheduled (on August 19th, and September 5th). Already, however, the facts about the death penalty – as well as a distinct moral dimension of unintended but real injustice – appear to be lined up strong and deep against it.

You can see a video excerpt from the commission hearing here.

Greg Bloom writes for Equal Justice USA, a national organization working to end the death penalty. Sign up to receive more information about the movement to stop executions!

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Posted at 10:08 AM, Aug 07, 2008 in Criminal Justice
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