Maryland death penalty debate in the spotlight

The New York Times has an interesting account this morning about the death penalty debate in Maryland and elsewhere. (And by "interesting," I mean I'm not quite sure where they're getting this stuff.) Their take is that Maryland is an example of a national trend of renewed interest in abolishing the death penalty as a cost cutting measure, given data showing that capital cases (with all their appeals and such) are more costly than sending someone to prison for life, even given the cost of feeding and housing the inmates for so long. The Times also says that "experts" consider Maryland to be among several states likely to abolish the death penalty this year. Apparently nobody there read our story last week about how the votes, at the moment, aren't there in the Senate. Of course, The Times is also under the impression that a repeal came up one vote short of passing in 2007, which it didn't.

But looking at their main point, the economic argument has been a part of the death penalty debate in Maryland for years, even before the current economic crisis made budget cutting a more prominent concern. But I have a hard time, knowing the dynamics at work in the Senate, in believing that it would be the factor that pushes the issue over the top this year. None of the key senators who will decide how the issue proceeds have listed economic concerns as foremost in their minds; Sen. Bryan Simonaire of Anne Arundel, for instance, says he's worried about executing an innocent man, not how much it costs.

In general, the economic argument seems a bit limited in that states where the death penalty might be in danger of repeal are those in which it's not used that often anyway. There are so few capital cases in Maryland -- about five or six a year since the penalty was reinstated 31 years ago -- that repealing wouldn't make much of an impact on the budget. Texas, one would imagine, could save a bundle under this argtument, but I kind of doubt the Lone Star state is on the verge of repeal.

And if we need more evidence that cost isn't the primary element of the debate here, I offer this: Gov. O'Malley, Maryland's death penalty opponent in chief, is about to lead a march to the State House in protest of capital punishment. He's making the trek with priests and ministers, not accountants.

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