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Will Maryland go back on its word?

Several years ago when opponents of the death penalty were making their case for repeal, we constantly heard the refrain that "life without parole" is a sufficiently tough sentence. This year the assault on eliminating life without parole has begun.

Pending in Annapolis is legislation (Senate Bill 366 and House Bill 337) that would permit defendants who were sentenced to life without parole before they turned 18 to now be eligible for parole.

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If these bills are passed, the promise the state of Maryland made to the family of each murder victim — that life without parole means life without parole — will be broken. It means family members who thought they would never have to relive the murder of their loved one again will have to do so at their tormentor's every parole hearing, which under the proposed bills can happen every three years after the defendant becomes eligible (by serving 15 years of his or her sentence). This is not what the victims' families were promised, and the state should keep its word. Life without parole should mean life without parole.

Let us tell you about one of the defendants from our county and why he deserves the sentence he received:

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Benjamin Garris is currently 34; he was convicted of first-degree murder, which he committed at the age of 16.

On Oct. 8, 1995, Baltimore County police were called to the Sheppard Pratt Hospital for a suspicious condition. At a cottage on the hospital property, they found a small fire that had been ignited with a liquid accelerant. Throughout the cottage they found poured liquid chemicals that led to a propane tank on the second floor; the valve had been opened, and gas was leaking out.

Found in the cottage was the body of a 28-year-old woman, who was working her first overnight shift at the hospital as a care provider at the cottage, which housed three male juveniles. The woman, who had a 7-year-old child, had been slashed and stabbed 26 times.

Found in Mr. Garris' room were papers about setting fires and documents on how to kill people. He confessed to the murder, telling police that when the victim pleaded for her life he responded, "You're dead. That's right, and now you're nothing but a piece of meat."

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During the murder he mimicked the ultra-violent actions from his favorite movie, "A Clockwork Orange."

Mr. Garris had very competent legal representation, and a fully qualified judge from Baltimore County carefully considered the appropriate sentence and determined it to be life without parole. If these bills are passed, Mr. Garris would immediately be eligible for a parole hearing every three years.

There are approximately 17 defendants in Maryland's Division of Correction who are serving a life without parole sentence and would be eligible for parole if these bills pass. We could go on into horrendous detail after stomach wrenching detail about the horrible crimes these defendants committed. The two defendants from Dorchester County repeatedly raped and stomped to death a 33-year-old mother and waitress. The defendant from Anne Arundel County killed four women in two counties, including a 14-year-old girl. And so on. We will spare you further details, but suffice it to say that they rank up there with the worst of the worst.

In Maryland you can only receive a sentence of life without parole for first degree murder. Judges in each one of these cases considered the crimes these defendants committed and, based upon the facts of the case, used their considered judgment to hand down sentences of life without parole, not life with parole. These were adult crimes, and they were treated as such. We promised the victims' families in each of these cases that life meant life.

The state of Maryland should keep its promise and not give those convicted of these horrible crimes a chance to menace the public again.

State Sen. James Brochin represents Maryland District 42 in Baltimore County; his email is jim.brochin@senate.state.md.us. Scott Shellenberger is Baltimore County's state's attorney; his email is statesattorney@baltimorecountymd.gov.

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