Correct a terrible mistake

The Baltimore Sun

In 28 years in the Maryland House of Delegates, nine as speaker, I cast thousands of votes. I have few regrets. But there is one vote I wish I could take back - my 1978 vote to reinstate the death penalty in Maryland.

My vote seemed reasonable at the time. The Supreme Court had thrown out all state death penalty laws. Like other states, Maryland re-enacted the death penalty by approving a system that complied with new criteria established by the high court.

Today, that vote haunts me. Since reinstatement, Maryland's 30 years of experience with the death penalty have been a colossal failure. I now believe that life in prison without the possibility of parole is a better alternative. The majority of Marylanders agree.

Late last year, a respected state commission chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti conducted the most thorough examination of Maryland's death penalty ever performed. The commission's report is a terrifying indictment of the system our state government uses to take a life. It should be required reading for the General Assembly.

Most frightening, the commission found that Maryland has a real risk of executing an innocent person. Indeed, one person was discovered to be innocent after spending eight years on Maryland's death row. Nationally, 130 innocent people have been condemned to die.

Our current system can't prevent more innocent people from being sentenced to death. Instead, prosecutors and judges are stuck in an expensive and cumbersome system, all in a futile attempt to prevent an irreversible mistake.

This system hurts everyone. Families of victims wait as long as a decade for justice. Taxpayers spend millions on the failed system. And scarce resources in the criminal justice system are squandered in a haphazardly administered system.

In contrast, life without parole begins immediately after a conviction. Families are spared years of delay and the uncertainty associated with the death penalty appeals and post-conviction proceedings guaranteed by our Constitution. Law enforcement can focus on more effective prosecution that guarantees lifetime imprisonment. And as a state, we are spared the collective risk that one of our innocent fellow citizens might lose his life because of a mistake.

We human beings are imperfect, not just individually but collectively as a society. This reality confirms what my Catholic faith has long held: As fallible humans, we should not give ourselves - and our state government - the power to decide who lives or dies.

Decades ago, I was sure that the death penalty made sense for the "worst of the worst."

Today, thanks to the commission's report and all that we have learned about the death penalty since 1978, I can reconcile my moral convictions with a practical public policy decision. Replacing the death penalty with life without parole is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

Capital punishment is rightfully on its way out in the United States. Maryland can and should be a national leader. I hope our state legislators will correct the mistake my colleagues and I made 31 years ago.

Casper R. Taylor Jr., a resident of Cumberland, served in the Maryland House of Delegates for 28 years and was speaker from 1994 to 2003. His e-mail is ptaylor21502@hotmail.com.

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