A study of Maryland's capital punishment laws released yesterday recommends a shorter, less costly appeals process and a switch to execution by lethal injection instead of the gas chamber.
A seven-member commission that spent the last 11 months studying Maryland's death penalty gave its 250-page report to Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday.
The panel found the average death penalty case costs Maryland taxpayers $300,000 to $400,000. The state has spent roughly $12 million on death penalty cases since 1978, even though no one has been executed in the state since 1961.
As part of its report, the commission drafted eight bills for the General Assembly's January session, most notably a bill that would eventually require execution by lethal injection.
Gary E. Bair, an assistant attorney general who led the commission, said members hope the bills are included in the governor's 1994 legislative package.
Governor Schaefer has said he would support a switch from lethal gas to lethal injection, because many feel the injection is a more humane way to carry out executions.
Paige W. Boinest, the governor's press secretary, said yesterday that the governor was briefed before the report was finished and supports most of its recommendations.
Maryland's use of the gas chamber is also under challenge in federal court by death row inmate Donald Thomas, who was convicted of murdering an Arbutus couple in 1981.
A bill to change the method of execution to lethal injection passed the Senate but died in a House of Delegates committee during the General Assembly's 1993 session.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that killed the bill, said he thinks this one has a better chance of passing because it gives those currently on death row an option to be executed by gas or lethal injection. The earlier bill required all condemned inmates to be executed by lethal injection, which could have created legal problems, he said. Those sentenced to death after the effective date of the new law would all be executed by lethal injection.
Last session, the Senate passed several bills to speed death penalty appeals. Those bills also died in the House committee. Mr. Vallario said the commission's recommendations have a better chance of passing than last year's measures.
The commission made 19 recommendations, including suggestions to:
* Shorten the direct appeal process to the Court of Special Appeals by requiring court reporters to produce trial transcripts in 60 days, instead of the average 120 days now.
* Require the Court of Appeals to issue opinions within 90 days of hearing oral arguments. The current average wait is 8.2 months.
* Reduce the time allowed for filing a post-conviction appeal from 240 to 180 days, and require circuit courts to issue an opinion within 90 days of a post-conviction hearing.
* Allow only one post-conviction review but provide a "safety valve" in which defendants may get additional hearings if they discover new evidence of innocence.
The commission listed 13 findings, including a conclusion that the current review process for death penalty sentences is adequate but has too many delays. The commission also commended the public defender's office for its job in representing death penalty inmates.
The commission also found that:
* There is no "intentional" racial discrimination in death penalty sentencing patterns, but geographically, capital prosecutions in Maryland happen in an "uneven fashion."
* Death penalty cases cost more than ordinary murder cases, but "little can be done to reduce significantly those costs without sacrificing fairness and accuracy."
The panel included Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms; Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, an outspoken proponent of speeding death penalty appeals; Assistant Public Defender Gary W. Christopher; and Harry S. Johnson, a lawyer with the firm of Whiteford, Taylor and Preston.
Two non-lawyers also served: Joseph Jenifer, a retired government executive, and Anne F. McCloskey, whose brother, Victor Furst, was murdered by Derrick White in 1981 in Baltimore County. White was sentenced to death twice, but both sentences were overturned. He is serving a life sentence.