Maryland legislators are now debating whether to abolish the death penalty - an issue that has aroused passions on both sides, here and across the nation. The challenge for journalists at The Sun has been to report on that confrontation without favoring either side.
Recent articles by Sun reporters Jennifer Skalka and Larry Carson have shown that the paper has covered the debate on its news pages thus far with dispassion and fairness. Meanwhile, Sun columnist Gregory Kane used the latitude allowed to writers in his role to offer passionate personal opinions about the death penalty's utility.
Together, they and other Sun staff members have been piecing together a mosaic of death penalty coverage that aims to inform the independent judgment of Sun readers. That striving to illuminate is at the heart of a newspaper's mission.
When the Maryland Court of Appeals halted executions last December because of inadequate review of lethal-injection procedures, it opened the door for a possible repeal of the death penalty. The ruling also set the stage for Gov. Martin O'Malley to actively endorse repeal.
A repeal bill's sponsors - Baltimore Democrats Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg and Sen. Lisa Gladden - have been working hard to persuade enough of their colleagues to support their legislation to win approval in both houses of the legislature. But there is sufficient opposition to leave its fate in doubt.
Enter Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a socially conservative Republican Catholic lawmaker from Frederick whose vote could decide whether a bill abolishing the death penalty will pass the state Senate. In a front-page article on Feb. 24, Skalka described how Mooney was torn on the issue and was agonizing over his vote.
Skalka's article richly dramatized how political realities and personal beliefs can intersect to create a serious moral dilemma. Because the Catholic church opposes the death penalty but almost all members of his party support it, Mooney is facing a difficult decision.
Skalka also reported that legislators who share Mooney's views could well try to amend the repeal bills to include a compromise that would permit the execution of those who murder police or correctional officers.
Reader Desmond Wishon said: "I'm aware that other Catholic politicians have faced this tough choice in the past, but it's rare that this one man's decision is so pivotal. Ms. Skalka's article did an excellent job of juxtaposing the political and personal issues at work. It makes Sen. Mooney come off as a conflicted human being and not an ideologue who doesn't think deeply about things."
The article also quoted Mooney's colleague Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who said he will break with his party and vote against the death-penalty repeal bill. Brochin is not alone, as Howard County reporter Carson noted in his Feb. 25 article.
Carson reported that four of eight Democrats in Howard oppose repeal. It most cases, Carson found that conventional political labels such as "liberal" and "conservative" did not matter much when legislators consider this challenging issue. One Democrat senator said: "Some crimes are just so heinous. To me, the death penalty is the appropriate sanction."
Kane's Feb. 24 column ("Prison time won't stop these killers. Death will") argued the point that only a death penalty prevents gang killings inside prisons, where many perpetrators already are serving life without parole. Kane also noted the killing of Maryland corrections officer David Mc- Guinn last July. "Two men have been charged with killing McGuinn," he wrote. "Both are serving life terms. If they're found guilty, just how are they punished for McGuinn's killing if Maryland has no death penalty?"
In my view, Kane's column was a useful addition to The Sun's coverage. Readers had sharply varied opinions of his column.
Louis H. Knapp said: "Kane is absolutely correct. There is an old adage that 'if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.' In Maryland, if the death penalty is outlawed, only outlaws will have the death penalty."
From Frank D. Moran Sr.: "I was so impressed with Mr. Kane's article that I e-mailed it to all the senators just in case they missed it."
Catherine Hibbert had a different view: "Mr. Kane blasts Gov. O'Malley, Sen. Gladden and Rep. Rosenberg for not remembering the David Mc- Guinn case. What he failed to note was an underlying reason for the correctional officer's killing: lack of staffing and inadequate protection. Do you think killing his killers will prevent a future incident?"
Erik Roskes said: "Mr. Kane might recall that Maryland currently does have a death penalty. This did not seem to hinder the killers of David McGuinn."
With engaged readers like these, I'm certain Maryland legislators will receive even more feedback from their constituents. This is how the democratic process is supposed to work.
Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.