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Death penalty unfair, expensive

On the heels of an election that affirmed the Free State's desire for equal opportunities and protections under the law for everyone, we see a path to another victory for fairness and justice. It's time for Maryland to abolish the death penalty.

Maryland is on the cusp of putting an end to this failed experiment in orchestrated killing. Like the coalition that crossed faith, political, racial and economic boundaries to pass the Dream Act and marriage equality, a similarly strong alliance is emerging to end the death penalty and to replace it with a conviction of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

We are an eclectic coalition, called to this work for differing reasons. For some, it is a matter of faith and moral conviction that state-sanctioned killings are wrong. Others fight against this punishment because of the inherent inequalities that exist in our criminal justice system. And still others have evolved in their position because they have come to realize the death penalty is indefensible in practice.

We are all united in the belief that capital punishment is a uniquely severe and irreversible component of our legal system that neither deters crime nor guarantees justice. States that impose capital punishment do not have lower rates of criminal homicide. Indeed, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that states with the death penalty generally have the highest murder rates. A national survey of chiefs of police ranked the death penalty as one of the least effective ways to reduce violent crime. Rather, they suggest increasing investments in police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating a better economy with meaningful jobs as better ways to reduce violence.

Another reason to abandon this form of punishment is that it is unevenly and unfairly applied. In Maryland, 76 percent of murder victims are African American, yet all of the men sitting on death row are there for killing a white person. A Maryland commission concluded that black offenders killing white victims were at greater risk of a death sentence because they were more likely to be charged with a capital offense by the state's attorney.

The irreversibility of the death penalty requires an absolute certainty in capital cases that we cannot possibly obtain. Life in prison without the possibility of parole is a fairer approach to punishment.

Life in prison is smarter economically, too. Taxpayers are expected to benefit from a $1.4 million reduction in litigation costs after the first year of repeal, and $800,000 in savings the year after.

Put simply, the death penalty does not make us safer; it does not save us money; it does not work; and it cannot be fixed. It must be abandoned.

Kirk Bloodsworth is living proof of that. Kirk is a lifelong Marylander and Marine who was wrongly convicted of homicide in 1983. He spent nine years in prison, including a harrowing two years on death row awaiting his ultimate punishment, before DNA evidence proved his innocence. His chilling story is not unique. To date, more than 280 people in 35 states have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing.

With popular opinion turning our way, so has legislative momentum. Last year's legislation garnered 66 sponsors in the House and 19 in the Senate. We need 71 votes to prevail in the House and 24 in the Senate. It is time to put this support to the test of a vote.

By willfully taking human life, the state imitates the worst of human impulses. Extinguishing a light, however dim, is never a path to greater illumination. Ending this unworkable, immoral, failed aspect of our justice system is the right thing to do. And now is the right time to do it. Maryland, let your light shine.

Sister Helen Prejean is a nationally acclaimed death penalty repeal advocate and author of the bestselling book, "Dead Man Walking." Del. Heather R. Mizeur represents the 20th Legislative District in Montgomery County and is a cosponsor of legislation to repeal Maryland's death penalty. Her email is heather@heathermizeur.com.

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