Senators: Do the right thing

Citizens of a civilized society ruled by law -- even one that has sent 124 innocent defendants to Death Row during the past 30 years, according to a count kept by the American Civil Liberties Union -- should be deeply troubled by imperfection, by the prospect of putting an innocent man or woman to death. We should be deeply troubled by the lack of logic in the death penalty's imposition across the land, and by the influence of race and geography in sentencing (see Baltimore County).

    One American who reflected long and hard on the question is the acclaimed suspense novelist Scott Turow. He does not bring a set of religious beliefs to the debate, and he eschews what he calls the usual "liberal pieties." He takes a clinical approach to the whole matter. He had to, having been appointed to the Illinois governor's commission on the death penalty seven years ago.

    George Ryan, the Republican governor from 1999 to 2003, had become alarmed at the number of Illinois death row inmates who'd been wrongly convicted. "We have now freed more people than we have put to death under our system -- 13 people have been exonerated and 12 have been put to death," Ryan said as he declared a moratorium on state executions.

    Turow, a former prosecutor who became the best-selling author of Presumed Innocent and other novels, went to work with the commission, researching all aspects of capital punishment. He chronicled his experiences in Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty. It was published in 2003. It's not a long read, and Maryland state senators should take the time to read it.

"If my time on the commission taught me one lesson," Turow writes, "it was that I was approaching the question of capital punishment the wrong way. There will always be cases that cry out to me for ultimate punishment. That is not the true issue. The pivotal question instead is whether a system of justice can be constructed that reaches only the rare, right cases, without also occasionally condemning the innocent or the undeserving."

    The death penalty might represent an American idea of justice; it might be a grand symbol of our moral instincts, Turow says. But it is also fraught with inequities and shortcomings that we don't seem to be able to fix or resolve, that persist despite efforts at reform and long, tedious appeals. "You are four times more likely to get a death sentence in a rural area as an urban one," Turow said, in an interview last year. "Whether you receive a death sentence depends on whether you kill in an affluent area or a poor one."

    He notes that the killing of a white person results in the killer going to death row far more often than when the victim is black. In Illinois, white murderers were sentenced to death at a rate 2 1/2 times that for black murderers - largely because their victims were white. The same is true in Maryland.

    "In a racially divided society," Turow explains, "whites are more likely to associate with, and thus to murder, someone white, and that -- choosing a white victim -- turns out to be the controlling variable. Killing a white person made a murderer 3 1/2 times more likely to be punished with a death sentence than if he'd killed someone black."

    In Maryland, where 80 percent of murder victims are black, this aspect of capital punishment has been known for a long time, though it doesn't seem to bother nearly enough people. A University of Maryland study found that blacks who kill whites are 2 1/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death than are whites who kill whites, and they are 3 1/2 times more likely to be executed than blacks who kill blacks.

    And no jurisdiction in Maryland -- and the United States, for that matter -- has as high a percentage of inmates on death row as Baltimore County, according to a study by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Whom you kill and where you kill dictates whom the state, in turn, is asked to kill. This is an unfair system that needs to be abolished by the Maryland General Assembly.

    "When the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972," Turow writes, "the prevailing reason among the majority was because there was virtually no logic to who was being selected for execution and who wasn't. Legislatures and courts have spent the last [33 years] since capital punishment was restored attempting to establish more exacting guidelines and procedures, but the results are still wildly inconsistent."

    And wildly unfair. And unfair is un-American.

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