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It was good of Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger and Towson University professor Richard E. Vatz to present their best arguments for reinstating the death penalty in Maryland — or anywhere else, I suppose ("Reinstate the death penalty, Maryland," Jan. 7). Let's see if any of the arguments hold water.

1. The death penalty must be available for the "most unspeakable crimes." The obvious question is who determines if a crime is "most unspeakable?" The authors suggest that killing 100 children is unspeakable (I'd use a stronger adjective), but are they suggesting that killing five children is somehow less unspeakable? Is there an unspeakable threshold, something like any combination of X children and Y adults (all "innocent," of course), that once crossed leads to the death penalty? May I suggest that all murders are unspeakable and that this is not a productive argument?

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2. Public opinion. The authors provide their own rebuttal ("somewhat unstable") to this argument, but of course in the not-too-distant past, there was widespread public support for the ownership of other humans, for the suppression of a woman's right to vote and for the treatment of mental illnesses by involuntary incarceration. These practices were never morally right, regardless of public support, so this is a nonsensical argument.

3. Law enforcement shootings. No argument is presented by Messrs. Shellenberger and Vatz as to why police officers should be treated differently than, for example, fire fighters, teachers or nurses. A murder is the death of a fellow citizen, and while some deaths invoke more public emotion than others, rule by law requires that we set emotion aside, to the best of our imperfect abilities, when judging and punishing.

4. A deterrent. Whether or not the death penalty deters a significant number of would-be killers is a complicated issue, and I suspect that it's most honest to say that we really don't know. However, the authors seem to be confusing correlation and causation while stating an opinion as if it were a fact. It is a fact that permitting the death penalty puts us in the same class as Botswana, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. Are we proud of the company we keep?

5. Lifers are free to kill again. Obviously we need to structure correction facilities and procedures (including training) to maximize the safety of correctional officers. There are rewards and punishments (short of execution) available to encourage desired inmate behavior, and arguments about cruel and unusual punishment duly noted, there may be people who must be forced to spend the rest of their lives away from other people.

6. Cost. Agreed, this is a weak argument for abolishing the death penalty. It is interesting, however, that money and spending are extremely important to certain segments of the population until, that is, they collide with other extremely important beliefs. (Sort of like state's rights: paramount until the state does something unsavory.)

7. Executing an innocent person. Calling an idea bogus doesn't make it so, and if we want to speak in wild hypotheses, let me suggest that just as a freed guilty person may kill thousands more, an executed innocent person may have gone on to find a cure for cancer and saved millions had he not been killed by the state. Here Messrs. Shellenberger and Vatz are slipping away from the life-without-parole alternative and waxing hysterically about freed guilty persons. It seems they sense the weakness of this particular argument. There is strong evidence that innocent people have been executed in this country, and there are many examples of people freed while awaiting execution based on a fair re-evaluation of their case, so the killing of innocents should not be dismissed in such a caviler manner.

It is not until the end of their commentary that the authors get to the crux of the matter, using the phrase: "within a fair court system." I think we can agree that there are people who have squandered the right to walk free among us, but until we have a court system that is truly blind to race, money, gender, political connection, etc., we should not fool ourselves that it is a fair system. And consequently we should not ask it to make decisions that cannot be undone.

Ray Hughes, Catonsville

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