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Cleaning up a deadly, unjust mess


CHALK UP another death penalty supporter who is calling for a moratorium on executions.

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden of Baltimore's 45th District describes himself as a supporter of the death penalty "in some cases." But he favored Gov. Parris N. Glendening's commutation of Eugene Colvin-el's death sentence to life in prison without parole. In a June 23 letter to the governor, McFadden urged Glendening to "take the next step: impose an immediate moratorium on the death penalty in the State of Maryland pending completion of an independent study on the administration of this final and irreversible penalty."

The governor of Illinois, George Ryan, has imposed such a moratorium in that state after 13 death row inmates were cleared of murder charges in the past 22 years. McFadden, in his letter, alluded to the reasons the administration of the death penalty in Illinois is, to coin a 1960s phrase, such a putrid mess.

"Since 1970, more than 80 inmates sentenced to death nationally have been exonerated by new evidence of their innocence, including evidence discovered through DNA testing," McFadden wrote. "Others failed to receive adequate legal representation because their lawyers were either inexperienced in capital cases, poorly financed or simply incompetent; in Illinois alone, for example, 33 death row inmates had been represented by attorneys who had at some point been disbarred or suspended."

Such shoddy representation for poor defendants no doubt led to McFadden's urging Glendening to support the establishment of a "special public defender's office that handles only death-penalty cases. This unit would have funds for all the private investigators, DNA tests, attorney and support staff salaries that the financially secure get when they go to trial for murder. No one should end up on death row because he or she did not have the dollars to hire a good lawyer."

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the governor, said he had received McFadden's letter. She didn't know whether the governor had answered it, but indicated that Glendening would continue his policy of reviewing each clemency petition as it reaches his desk, rather than impose a blanket moratorium.

"The feeling of the administration is the study is being done and he will await those results," Guillory said. "Each individual case is different, and that's why he wants to go over each case with a fine-toothed comb."

The study Guillory referred to is the project for which legislators set aside $225,000 to determine whether the death penalty is administered fairly and without racial bias in Maryland. The study is expected to take the rest of the summer. But how does the governor feel about the Illinois moratorium - where a Republican governor has out-liberaled him on the death penalty issue - or the high number of death row inmates in Texas?

"That does concern him, the high number of people being put to death," Guillory said. "I've heard him say that Maryland is not a state that hands down the death penalty with the frequency of Texas. That's what gives him the opportunity to look at each case extensively."

Glendening did that in the Colvin-el case, Guillory said. But it didn't stop some folks from claiming he commuted Colvin-el's sentence for political reasons, either to benefit an expected gubernatorial run in 2002 by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend or to secure himself a spot in a possible Al Gore presidential administration.

"That's ludicrous," Guillory said. "Completely ludicrous. The governor would never make a decision regarding someone's life for political reasons. He believes in the death penalty. But you don't want to make a mistake. He looked at the evidence in this case and felt Colvin-el was guilty, but that all the evidence was not there to make him feel 100 percent certain that this man should be put to death." Guillory indicated that a 99 percent certainty, or even a 99.9 percent certainty, was not enough for the governor.

The only thing new in McFadden's letter, according to Guillory, is the proposed special public defender's unit to handle only death penalty cases. And even that's not totally new. Guillory said such a unit already exists - in the state public defender's office. It's called the capital defense division.

A call to that office - to find out how long it's been in existence, whether it's adequately funded to pay for private investigators, DNA tests, expert witnesses and the like - turned up only some poor soul who said she was just "filling in for someone on vacation."

It's good to know that the special public defender's unit handling only death penalty cases already exists. But it leaves you with a bad feeling that the office has no one around to answer even the simplest of questions. Makes you wonder what they're doing for defendants, doesn't it?

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