Death Penalty Repeal in Maryland — The Final Act?


Maryland legislators voted on Friday to repeal the death penalty, a move that could finally mark the end of a debate over capital punishment that stretches back to Maryland’s colonial days. But there’s a chance that the issue may not be settled; supporters of the death penalty threaten a challenge by referendum.

Early Maryland settlers, despite opposition from some members of the clergy, applied the death penalty liberally: for murder, rape, burglary, arson, horse-theft and even such white-collar crimes as counterfeiting.  Colonial courts had no difficulty passing out death sentences, but getting someone to carry them out was more difficult.

Sheriffs were charged with seeing that the executions were carried out, but records indicate they usually farmed out the job — sometimes to convicted murderers.  John Dandy was the first; he became Maryland’s official executioner in 1649 in exchange for a pardon that spared him from the gallows.  But he eventually found the other end of the rope.  Dandy was convicted of murdering again eight years later, and died with his heels in the air.

After statehood, the Maryland General Assembly met in Annapolis to codify what had become a patchwork skein of justice concerning the death penalty.  The members convened under the same shimmering State House dome that housed Friday’s vote for repeal, but their task was to formulate a clear capital punishment law — one that would endure, in one form or another, for more than two hundred years.

The lawmakers wanted to bring order to a haphazard system that had, up to that point, put to death 55 men and four women for crimes ranging from burglary to treason, jail-breaking to murder. One of the women was hanged for witchcraft.

The legislators defined a new category of First Degree Murder as “any kind of wilful, deliberate and premeditated killing,” and set the penalty as death.  The state’s hangmen had steady work under the new statute, averaging three to four executions a year. They were huge public events with rowdy, often alcohol-fueled crowds.

State officials were offended by what they called “the curious mobs that frequent hangings taking place in the counties of this State, and who attempt to make public affairs of the same,” and by 1923 executions had been moved indoors, to the state penitentiary.

H.L. Mencken, then writing for the Baltimore Sun, witnessed nine hangings at the penitentiary. He famously wrote: “Hanging one scoundrel, it appears, does not deter the next. Well, what of it? The first one is at least disposed of.”

Death was the mandatory penalty for first degree murder for 99 years, but in 1908 judges were given the option of imposing a life sentence. Executions continued, but at a slowing pace. In fact, after the 1961 execution of Baltimore killer-rapist Nathaniel Lipscomb, there was a lull of 33 years — mirroring a trend nationwide, and reinforced by a four-year Supreme Court ban on executions.

On May 17th, 1994, John Frederick Thanos, a thuggish and unrepentant killer of three teenagers, was put to death in a new execution chamber in that old state penitentiary.  He was the first Maryland inmate to die by lethal injection. There were only two other executions before Gov. Paris Glendenning ordered a moratorium in 2002.

Glendening called a halt to allow the University of Maryland to conduct a study of how the death penalty was being administered.  The conclusions were damning: the study found economic and racial disparities, and recommended that the death penalty be abolished. The legislature did not act, however, and Glendening’s successor, Robert Ehrlich, gave the go-ahead for two more executions, Steven Oken in 2004 and Eugene Baker in 2005. Baker’s was the 404th execution in Maryland.

There has not been another execution since, because of developments in the Statehouse and in the courts.

In 2006, the Maryland Court of Appeals found that the state’s regulations governing executions were technically defective. Executions could not go forward without the defect being corrected, the court said, and the incoming administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley was in no rush to correct it.

O’Malley spurred an unsuccessful effort in the legislature to repeal the death penalty in 2007, and renewed his campaign two years later. The General Assembly created a commission to conduct another major study, and that report also unequivocally called for repeal. But instead of doing away with it, lawmakers limited the death penalty to cases in which there was DNA evidence, evidence caught on videotape, or a videotaped confession.

That is the law that finally yielded to O’Malley’s persistence on Friday.  The debate in both chambers of the legislature was at times both intense and emotional. Supporters of repeal, backed by the Catholic Church and the NAACP, were ubiquitous in the capitol’s galleries, hallways and offices.  Individuals with powerful stories told them around the State House to anyone who would listen.

Vicki Schieber, who lost a daughter to rape and murder, has been coming to Annapolis for a decade to argue against the death penalty.  “Vengeance can destroy you,” she says.  “It doesn’t hurt my daughter’s killer at all.”

Schieber and the ranks of death-penalty opponents were joined by a 52-year-old man who almost lost his life in Maryland’s death chamber.  Kirk Bloodsworth, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1985, was alive to lobby lawmakers because DNA evidence cleared him. He was freed in 1993, the first Death Row inmate to be exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing.

The repeal effort finally succeeded when the state’s House of Delegates voted to approve a bill passed earlier by the Senate.  Governor O’Malley is poised to sign the new law.

But opponents are already planning their next move — a drive to compel a referendum on the issue. Maryland law requires only about 50-thousand signatures to force a referendum on the ballot -– a goal easily attainable in the internet age, as demonstrated by referenda last year on gay marriage and casino gambling, with enough financial backing.  Money will be key to any referendum drive.

Polls on the death penalty show public opinion very much divided: a majority of Maryland voters favors keeping capital punishment on the books, according to the pollsters, but most respondents also do not believe it deters criminals.

The House of Delegates will be voting in a matter of days; citizens of Maryland may be faced with this life-or-death decision in their voting booths next year.

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