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How can state leaders still cling to death penalty?

The death penalty in the hands of politicians: Few things seem as twisted and as troubling as the matter of state-sponsored executions authorized by men and women with large nameplates pinned to their lapels. While in the ideal they might be devoted to public service and to representative democracy, what most of them seek, first and foremost, is name recognition and re-election. And in a nation as violent as ours, re-election has required being tough on crime, and being tough on crime has required support of capital punishment.

That has been the instruction in American politics for a generation; even alleged liberals Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton supported the death penalty. When he was running for president in 1992, Mr. Clinton stepped away from his campaign long enough to return to Arkansas to oversee the execution of a brain-damaged killer named Ricky Ray Rector. Grandstanders - Democrat and Republican, senators and state's attorneys - have used the death penalty to earn tough-on-crime bona fides. The death penalty has served the political class at great expense to the greater society; it has sapped resources that could have been better spent for public safety.

People are hip to this now, and the grandstanders are becoming more apparent and isolated. In Maryland, a Gonzales poll in January found that public support of the death penalty had fallen by nearly 10 percentage points in eight years, and 65 percent of us now believe life in prison without parole is an acceptable alternative.

National surveys reveal that growing numbers of Americans see the problems of an entire system: a failed war on drugs, the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world, prisons with revolving doors, and, at last count by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, 130 innocent men placed on death row in 26 states over the last 36 years.

This broken system has been kept in place by entrenched politicians, such as those who run the Maryland General Assembly.

Now Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has been in office but two years, comes to the state Senate to demand repeal of the death penalty, armed with a report that should settle the issue. The report, from the commission headed by former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, is based on what appears to be an objective assessment of capital punishment here over the last 30 years. It bristles with information, analysis, logic and integrity - imagine that! - and it makes the following conclusions:

•Disparities exist when the race of the defendant and the race of the victim are taken into account; killers of white victims are 2 1/2 times more likely to face the death penalty than killers of African-Americans.

•With so much prosecutorial discretion, county by county, capital cases are vulnerable to jurisdictional disparities beyond reform: "The fact that similar capital offenses perpetrated by similar offenders are treated so differently depending on where the crimes are committed renders the administration of capital punishment irretrievably inconsistent, nonuniform and therefore unfair in Maryland."

•The death penalty has been a waste of money. Sixty-two of 77 death sentences have been reversed. Add to the costs of those cases and their post-conviction appeals the cost of keeping inmates on death row, estimated at $68,000 annually. "There are other areas in the Maryland criminal justice system where such resources could be applied and significant results could be expected."

State senators who remain supporters of the death penalty, starting with their way-too-long-time president, Thomas V. Mike "If it's lethal injection, I'll insert the needle" Miller, need to be asked if they've read this report - and, if so, how, in good conscience, they can maintain the status quo in the face of it. Certainly, at this point, there is only the pathetic political consideration, the idea that, by voting for repeal, they would become vulnerable in re-election.

Those who cling to the death penalty in Maryland need to be held accountable. Clinging to the death penalty means clinging to a biased and unfair system that saps the state and local budgets of money that could be better spent to protect the public, and it means assigning to all of us the still-real risk of someday executing the wrong man.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays on this page and Tuesdays in the news pages. He is host of the midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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