MARYLAND Attorney General Joseph Curran was a trial lawyer for 23 years. He knows the mistakes the system can make. Boy, does he know.
It was the late 1960s when Curran got a call from one of his parochial school classmates. The guy had been charged with two savings and loan robberies. A teller had fingered him as the holdup man. Yeah, that's the guy, she'd told the cops.
During Curran's investigation of the case, he got a call from an FBI agent. The bureau was holding some guy in Florida who had confessed to the stickups hung on Curran's client. When Curran got the picture of the real bandit, he could see there was a close enough resemblance to his client for the teller to make an honest mistake.
"Many, if not most, of these mistakes are cured by good lawyers or appeals or reviews," Curran said from his downtown office this week. "We catch a lot of them. It's good to reverse a case that's bad."
But, Curran says, an execution of an innocent person can't be reversed, which is only one of the reasons he sent his now-famous - or infamous, depending on where you stand - letter of Jan. 29 to Gov. Robert Ehrlich, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and members of the Maryland General Assembly.
"I write today to ask you to abolish the death penalty," Curran's letter read. "In doing so, I need not repeat the moral argument that the State should not be the instrument of any person's death. This is my belief; others sincerely disagree. I respect the difference.
"What policy makers must now confront about the death penalty, without evasion or delay, is this: Capital punishment forces us to accept the unacceptable - the inevitability of an irreversible mistake that results in an innocent person's death. It requires us to live with the certainty that now and then, despite all the safeguards, appeals and post-convictions, we will execute the wrong person."
Death penalty advocates will no doubt counter Curran's use of the words "inevitability" and "certainty" in predicting the execution of an innocent person with the observation that, in Maryland, it's been darned hard to get the guilty executed.
There is no doubt of Steven Oken's guilt. A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge signed his death warrant last month, more than 15 years after he raped, tortured and killed Dawn Garvin. Since Oken's innocence is not an issue, what's wrong with executing him the week of March 17? The question was put to Curran.
"I'm not going to talk about any of the persons now on death row," the attorney general answered. "That would be inappropriate." Curran stressed that his letter was designed to change Maryland's death penalty law. He did it, he said, for three reasons.
The first is the moral question. Curran sincerely believes, in a way we death penalty proponents probably can't understand, that it's immoral for the state to put someone to death. It's a view he learned from his family, church (Roman Catholic, which is nothing if not consistent on the sanctity-of-life issue) and school.
The second reason is University of Maryland professor Raymond Paternoster's death penalty study. Curran alluded to the racial disparity pointed to by the treatise - something we news media folks have hyped. But capital punishment advocates insist the study supports no such thing.
Curran gave as his third reason the 103 death row inmates who capital punishment opponents say have been released since 1973. Dudley Sharp, resource director of the pro-death penalty group Justice For All, contends that figure is grossly exaggerated. But Curran would no doubt say he would feel the same way if the number was 103 or just one.
It boils down to a matter of principle. Death penalty opponents need only one argument: that they are, on moral grounds, against taking life. (Considering how poor the rest of their arguments are, that's the one they should stick with.) Those who believe in capital punishment feel it's perfectly moral to execute cold-blooded murderers.
There's another moral argument on the side of death penalty advocates. Dawn Garvin's brother Fred Romano gave his views in Wednesday's column and mentioned his parents are on numerous drugs as a result of the horrible way their daughter was murdered. The state of Maryland pays for none of those drugs.
If Oken gets sick, taxpayers, including the Romanos, foot the bill for his care. There's got to be something immoral in that.