More than three dozen legal scholars and attorneys — including former Gov. Harry R. Hughes and two former Maryland attorneys general, J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Stephen H. Sachs — are sending a letter and report to members of the General Assembly urging the repeal of the state's death penalty.
"There's a lot of misconception about Maryland's law" among legislators and the general public, said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, which organized the lobbying effort. The group was prompted to release the report, she said, because "many people think that Maryland had shut down its death penalty."
The attorneys argue that Maryland's death penalty law, enacted by the General Assembly in 2009, is still too arbitrary and costly to be worthwhile. Under the law, prosecutors can seek death only in cases where there is biological or video evidence tying the defendant to the murder or a videotaped confession.
Those evidentiary limits are artificial, Henderson said.
"It's a really odd way of limiting the death penalty," said Henderson. Instead of focusing on the nature of the crime and remorse of the criminal — the "worst of the worst" offenders — prosecutors are deciding to pursue death on evidentiary issues, she said.
The current death penalty law is also costly, she said, because it adds "a second phase to the sentencing trial," according to the report, which cites a 2008 Abell Foundation study that found "execution cost almost three times more than a non-death sentence — including the cost of long-term incarceration in life sentences."
Wednesday marks the fifth day of an Anne Arundel County jury's death penalty deliberations in the case against Lee Edward "Shy" Stephens, found guilty this month of stabbing a correctional officer to death in 2006 at a state prison in Jessup that has since closed.
If the jurors decide that Stephens — who is serving a sentence of life plus 15 years for a 1997 murder —should be put to death, he would be the first person to receive a capital sentence under Maryland's more restrictive death sentence law. The victim's blood was found on Stephens' clothes, the DNA link that makes the death penalty possible in this case.
Richard E. Vatz, a Towson University communications professor who supports the death penalty, said that the attorneys' arguments against the 2009 law miss the point.
He agrees that the determination of whether to pursue the death penalty should not be based on what kind of evidence is available. The current law, he said, actually creates a "road map for people who kill" to avoid the types of evidence that will make them eligible for death.
But negative aspects of the current law do not mean Maryland's death penalty should be eliminated, he said.
"We should use the level of certitude of a conviction" and the crime committed to decide whether the death penalty is appropriate, Vatz said.
The financial case against the death penalty, he said, is a "secondary argument" because cost is less important than the question of justice. In addition, it is difficult to compare the cost of a death penalty prosecution to the expense of keeping a person imprisoned without the possibility of parole, he said.
Hearings are scheduled next month in the House Judiciary Committee and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to consider repeal legislation, which proposes redirecting some funds from capital prosecutions to aiding victims' families.
Repeal has a dim future in this session of the General Assembly, whose leadership is expected to focus on financial issues for the rest of the session.
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