Now that two suspects in the sniper case are in custody, Maryland's gubernatorial candidates have quit tiptoeing around the crisis and are quickly trying to mold it to their respective advantage before Tuesday's election.
Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he would consider lowering the age of death-eligible criminals to 17.
Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend called for legislation to toughen the same gun laws that Ehrlich has said he would "review" to see whether they work or should be scrapped.
"It's a very important distinction between me and my opponent," Townsend said.
If elected, Ehrlich said, he might seek to expand Maryland law to allow judges to sentence 17-year-olds to death.
"My presumption is that juveniles should be tried in juvenile courts, and juveniles should not be executed," he said.
"But I think for 17-years-olds in the most egregious cases, which this case is, if [suspect Lee Boyd Malvo] is proven to be the shooter, that remedy should be available."
Townsend said Ehrlich's idea appeared to contradict his own juvenile crime platform, which calls for sending fewer youths to the adult system.
"That's obviously inconsistent with his own juvenile justice plan that he proposed two weeks ago," she said, adding that she does not see a need to change the death penalty statute.
"I think we've got good laws on the books."
Maryland's capital murder statute was amended to exclude juveniles, defined as under 18, in 1987 after a four-year lobbying campaign driven largely by the Maryland Catholic Conference.
Of the 38 states that use the death penalty, 22 allow juveniles to be executed.
But such executions are relatively rare, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
In the 26 years that the death penalty has been back in effect, 21 juvenile offenders have been executed, said Richard Dieter, the center's executive director.
Texas has allowed the highest number of juvenile executions; it has put three minors to death this year alone.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it constitutional to execute minors older than 15.
To try to lower the age limit in Maryland, Dieter said, would run counter to national trends: "Most legislation that has gone through states has been about raising the age."
Richard K. Dowling, lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, thinks it would be a step backward to include juveniles in the state's capital murder statute. "Certainly we would do anything we can to prevent going back to that," he said.
Townsend also talked yesterday of presenting legislation when the General Assembly meets in January. At a news conference inside the Montgomery County courthouse, she directed Maryland State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell to draft a bill that would ban assault-type weapons.
Townsend and Mitchell propose expanding the authority of the state's Handgun Roster Board from regulating only handguns to include control of military-style assault weapons.
They also want to expand the state's ballistic "fingerprinting" program to include all assault-type weapons - something Ehrlich has said he would consider.
Currently the state collects ballistic fingerprinting information only for new handguns.
"It is not an attempt to register or control legitimate firearms," Townsend said.
"I don't want to interfere with legitimate rights of sportsmen. It's about keeping lethal weapons out of the hands of criminals."
Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this article.