Maryland Repeals Its Death Penalty: Pennsylvania and Other States Must Follow Maryland’s Lead

Maryland became the 18th state to repeal its death penalty on May 2, after Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a long-awaited bill to rid its criminal code of capital punishment, according to a story in The Baltimore Sun.

O’Malley had supported the repeal since 2007 and failed in a previous attempt to overturn the law in 2009. This time, though, state legislators backed the measure and passed it in both the state Senate and House before sending it on to the governor for his signature. The new law goes into effect on Oct. 1.

“With the legislation signed today, Maryland has effectively eliminated a policy that is proven not to work,” the governor’s office said in a statement following the signing. “Evidence shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent, it cannot be administered without racial bias, and it costs three times as much as life in prison without parole. Furthermore, there is no way to reverse a mistake if an innocent person is put to death.”

Instead, “working together with law enforcement partners, Maryland has driven down violent crime and homicides to three decade lows,” the statement continued. “The Administration will continue to move forward with the things that work to save lives – more effective policing, better technology, information sharing and coordination, and smarter strategies to reduce crime.”

We here at MyPhillyLawyer applaud Maryland’s courageous repeal of this barbaric old law, which has been on the books there for more than 300 years. Maryland’s toughest punishment on crimes will now be a sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole.

The problem with the death penalty is that its finality is truly its major flaw. While its supporters may think that it brings justice in the aftermath of a hideous crime, the problem is that sometimes justice doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to work. Sometimes, people who are innocent of crimes are found guilty of offenses and are sentenced to death or life in prison. And that’s one of the key reasons that the death penalty today is outmoded, unreasonable and unsupportable by a nation of laws based on personal freedom, due process and justice. If executions take place, there is simply no going back in the event or legal errors, omissions or false testimony.

Supporters argue that the death penalty is an important deterrent against crime. They often also argue that it has always been justly handed down and that never has an innocent person been put to death.

The latter may not be true, however.

In Texas in 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed after he was convicted of setting a fire in his home that killed his three young daughters in 1991. He continuously maintained that he had not committed the crime, according to The Innocence Project, a group that works to assist prisoners who can be exonerated of charges through DNA testing. A 17-page analysis of the case, published in The New Yorker in 2009, detailed how many of the arson analysis methods used to convict Willingham were later found to be flawed.

The Willingham case continues to haunt death penalty opponents.

Only 18 of the 50 U.S. states – now including Maryland – forbid executions. That leaves the 32 remaining states, including Pennsylvania, which still allow the death penalty, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a group that opposes the death penalty. There is also no death penalty in the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico.

Since 1976, according to the DPIC, 1,330 prisoners have been executed in the U.S., including 10 so far this year.

In Maryland, there still is a slight catch. The newly-signed death penalty repeal could be subject to repeal if supporters of the death penalty carry out their threats and seek to overturn the state’s action through a referendum, according to The Baltimore Sun story.

“If opponents of repeal can gather 55,736 valid signatures by June 30 — the first third are due May 31 — the law would go to voters to decide in the November 2014 election,” reported The Sun.

One man who witnessed the signing of the bill in Maryland was Kirk Bloodsworth, who was convicted of the murder of a 9-year-old girl in Baltimore County but later exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the story. “Twenty-eight years ago I was sitting in a death row cell, and it became clear to me we could execute an innocent man,” Bloodsworth said. “No innocent person will ever be executed in this state ever again.”

In September 2011, Georgia prison inmate Troy Davis was put to death by lethal injection after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request for a last-minute stay of execution. Davis had been convicted in the 1989 slaying of an off-duty police officer but right up until he was put to death, he insisted that he was innocent of the crime. Sure, that’s what suspects usually say after they are apprehended, but in this case, many thousands of people questioned the accuracy of the case against Davis, according to a story in The Washington Post.

“But his conviction was based on eye witness accounts and no physical evidence,” reports a blog post on the website. “Through the years, some of the witnesses have walked back their testimony and doubts have emerged about the case. So much so that the Supreme Court gave Davis a chance to prove his innocence. The AP reports that was the ‘first time it had done so for a death row inmate in at least 50 years, but he couldn’t convince a judge to grant him a new trial.'”

Here at MyPhillyLawyer, we wrote on this very blog back in December 2009 about the terrifying case of James Bain, who spent 35 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  Bain was freed after DNA testing determined that he was not the man who kidnapped and raped a nine-year-old boy in Florida back in 1974.

At the time of his release from prison, Bain was the 248th person exonerated of crimes due to DNA testing in our nation, according to The Innocence Project.  Today, that number stands at 306 former prisoners who have been freed.

“No one can give James Bain those 35 years back, but his experience underscores again that our system of law is not without flaws and can allow innocent people to be imprisoned for decades,” we wrote in this blog at that time.

The horrific reality, though, is that had Bain’s alleged crime been subject to a death penalty, he could have been wrongly executed before his ultimate release.

That would have meant that an innocent man would have been put to death for a crime he didn’t commit.

And that is why we do not support the death penalty in the United States. Despite all the emotional reasons and excuses supporters voice, from providing a real punishment for cop-killers and horrific murders, terrorism and the like, there is no way to bring an executed prisoner back to life in the event of a mistake by the criminal justice system.

Justice is more important in our free nation than vengeance.

In March 2011, the state of Illinois repealed its death penalty. In a MyPhillyLawyer blog post at the time, we wrote that “Gov.  Pat Quinn of Illinois said so eloquently when he signed the bill, “We cannot have a death penalty in our state that kills innocent people.  If the system cannot be guaranteed 100 percent error free, then we cannot have the system.  It cannot stand.  It just is not right.”

There are no easy answers on these issues. But putting innocent people to death – or even allowing the possibility of innocent people being put to death – goes against everything in our laws and way of life in this country. We as a nation need to continue to discuss this issue rationally, intelligently and openly.

If even one innocent person is wrongly executed in this country, that is too many. We hope that the remaining 32 states that still have these archaic and inhumane punishments on their books, including our great state of Pennsylvania, will soon follow suit.