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'Worst of the worst' deserve execution

HomicideJustice System

Legislation is being submitted to abolish the death penalty in Maryland. It is suggested that the death penalty costs too much, achieves little and diminishes us as a society. The push to repeal comes on the heels of a poll showing that Marylanders still support the death penalty.

If the death penalty diminishes us as a society, how can it be that 48 percent of the community wishes to have it remain as a punishment and only 42 percent does not? There is a reason.

The death penalty in Maryland in the last 40 years has been applied in a much different manner than in other states — and even when compared to Maryland's own history. Texas has executed 474, Maryland five. California has 721 on death row, Maryland five. Before 1976, Maryland executed 306, since then five. This rare and selective use of the death penalty reflects the conscience of the community. The ultimate punishment is reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes.

In 2009, our death penalty statute was restricted even further to assure that only those whose guilt is conclusively proved face that sentence. Maryland currently has the most demanding and restrictive death penalty statute in the country. To be eligible for the death penalty, one must commit a first degree murder coupled with an aggravating factor, such as killing a police officer or killing more than one person. The state must prove that the killer is guilty using more than just eyewitness testimony. The state also needs either DNA linking the defendant to the murder, a videotaped confession or a video of the murder. This is in addition to the protections of a jury of one's peers and a direct appeal to Maryland's highest court. These guidelines ensure Marylanders that those who receive a sentence of death are truly guilty.

When we live in times of mass murders — Oklahoma City; the World Trade Center; Virginia Tech; Aurora, Colo.; and Newtown, Conn., to name a few — why would we remove the ultimate sanction for such crimes? And how do we assure our correctional officers' safety from inmates serving a life sentence who have nothing left to lose when they kill again in our prisons? Both prison employees and inmates need to know that if an inmate kills while behind bars, the punishment will be severe.

It is true that the last several times jurors in Maryland have been given a chance to impose the death penalty, they have not done so. This is how the law is supposed to work: thoughtful jurors listening to the facts and weighing the appropriate sentence. This is not a reason to take the penalty off the books for all time. This is a reason to celebrate that the system in Maryland works.

It is argued that those who receive a death sentence file countless appeals and receive one court hearing after another. Any reasoned observer would see that those who receive life without parole do the same thing — and have the rest of their lives to do so. Further, the cost of doing what is right should never be a factor in the criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, in Maryland, one day we will wake up to the news that a person has committed another unspeakable crime against his fellow man — maybe one similar to Newtown. What do we tell our fellow citizens when the death penalty is not even available as an option for the killing of 20 schoolchildren? What do we tell the rest of the country?

This is not a matter of vengeance; it is a matter of justice. Justice must exist for the killer, his victim and our community. When there is justice, much is achieved.

It is my strong belief that the death penalty should remain a sentencing option for those prosecutors who wish to seek it. More Marylanders than not share my view that we must retain the death penalty as an available tool when prosecuting those murderers who are the worst of the worst.

Scott Shellenberger is the Baltimore County state's attorney. His email is statesattorney@baltimorecountymd.gov.

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