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For the sake of victims' families, repeal the death penalty

I always thought murder was something that happened to other families. You read about it in the paper. You see the legal process unfold on TV. There's so much attention paid to certain murders that you assume the families going through their tragedy are getting support and help.

Then my son, Dennis, was murdered in 2002, and I learned how little support there actually is. Losing Dennis rests heavily with me every day. His murder received no notice, and our family was left to grieve on our own.

It turns out that my experience is not unusual. Only a small fraction of Maryland's 400-plus murders each year generate headlines. For those with the knowledge and means to access help, there is a patchwork of government and nonprofit services to help victims' families cope with their loss.

For too many of us, there is none of that.

We fail the families of too many murder victims at the moment when they need our support most. Murder traumatizes families, isolating survivors in their pain. Many survivors face trouble just getting out of bed, much less figuring out where to find and fight for grief counseling and other needed services.

Instead of providing comprehensive support to all surviving families of murder victims, Maryland has opted to maintain a costly death penalty that throws millions of dollars at just a few cases. A 2008 study commissioned by the Abell Foundation found that the average death penalty case adds almost $2 million extra to the state's costs, and that having the punishment has cumulatively cost the state $186 million.

I find this use of state resources offensive. Many murder victims come from low-income families. And although three-quarters of murder victims in Maryland are African-American, the five men currently on death row are all there for murdering white Marylanders.

Some say the death penalty offers justice to victims, but with the majority of people on death row still there after decades, even the cases that do result in execution impose a cruel wait on the victims' families. Changes to our state's death penalty law enacted in 2009 have only prolonged this.

Why do we choose to pursue a small handful of death sentences at a cost of millions and millions of dollars, all while tormenting the victims in the process? Those millions could instead help all victims' families with their trauma, and prevent crime so there aren't as many victims in the future. Why don't we invest to break the cycle of grief and violence, making for healthier and safer communities for all of us?

The ugly truth is that capital punishment elevates a few murders, leaving the rest of us to suffer without recognition. The effort to identify the "worst of the worst" rests on a false assumption that some murders are simply ordinary. What mother is going to agree that her little girl or boy's murder was ordinary? All murders are horrible and leave behind a family in grief, a family overwhelmed by a heartache we all hope to never face.

In 2008, the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, having heard testimony from many survivors of murder victims, concluded that capital cases are more detrimental to surviving families than life-without-parole cases. The commission recommended repealing the death penalty and using the resulting savings to increase resources and services for surviving families.

This is why the 2012 death penalty repeal bill will include funds to aid murder victims' families. I will be working with other family members who have lost loved ones to violence to pass this bill next year.

In a time of shrinking resources, we need to make choices. Instead of pursuing a handful of executions that may not take place for decades, let's take care of the thousands of families across Maryland who have been hurt by violent crime. Let's take care of all of us.

Vivian Penda, a Silver Spring resident, is co-chair of the board of directors of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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