Life-or-death decision must follow statutes

February 06, 2005|by PEPPER BALLARD

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Although the morality of the death penalty has been a matter of debate for years among those from opposite sides of the political spectrum, a different debate takes place behind the doors of prosecutors who decide whether first-degree charges warrant making a case for the ultimate sentence.

In Maryland, prosecutors who are considering seeking the death penalty on first-degree murder charges - premeditated murder or felony murder - must determine whether the aggravating factors, or circumstances that determine whether the death penalty can be sought, exist in the case. If aggravating factors do exist, they must be weighed against mitigating factors, or circumstances suggesting a lesser sentence is appropriate, before prosecutors determine they reasonably can expect to convict a defendant eligible for the death penalty beyond a reasonable doubt.

"If you've got one or more aggravators, then you can consider it," Washington County State's Attorney Charles Strong said. "Horrific facts - as disgusting and as terrible as they may be - are not the determining factors."


The current death penalty statute was approved by the Maryland General Assembly in 1978, said Kathryn Grill Graeff, chief of the criminal appeals division in the Maryland Office of the Attorney General.

Since then, 56 people have been sentenced to death in Maryland, four of whom have been executed, she said. None of those executed was from Washington County.

The last Washington County resident to be put to death was hanged for murder during a rare triple execution on Sept. 9, 1927, according to published accounts.

That day, a Washington County man and two Frederick County men - all three of them black - were hanged at the Maryland penitentiary, according to the Maryland Division of Correction.

Maryland's death penalty now is carried out by lethal injection, Graeff said.

The Mills case

Washington County District Judge M. Kenneth Long Jr., who was the county state's attorney from 1982 to 2004, said although the death penalty was sought in a few county cases, there was only one man he prosecuted who was sentenced to death, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled he was sentenced unfairly.

In 1984, Ralph William Mills was convicted of fatally stabbing his Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown cellmate, Paul Robin Brown, 45 times in his back and chest, according to published accounts. Mills used his cellmate's blood to write "Helter Skelter's Son" on the cell wall. He was serving a 30-year sentence for a 1982 murder at the time of the murder and was sentenced to death by an Allegany County, Md., jury, Long said.

Strong said death penalty defendants automatically are granted a change of venue if they request it, so the case was moved from Washington County to Allegany County.

After the case went through a series of appeals, in June 1988, then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote for the court that the state's sentencing procedures may have weighed too heavily in favor of imposing the death penalty in connection with Mills, according to published accounts.

"The decision to exercise the power of the state to execute a defendant is unlike any other decision citizens and public officials are called upon to make," Blackmun wrote in the decision. "Evolving standards of societal decency have imposed a correspondingly high requirement of reliability on the determination that death is the appropriate penalty in a particular crime. The possibility that [Mill's] jury conducted its task improperly certainly is great enough to require resentencing."

Long said that Mills got a resentencing hearing. A jury in Cumberland, Md., sentenced Mills to life in prison, he said.

'The appeals go forever'

Former Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening issued a moratorium on the death penalty in May 2002 after a University of Maryland study found that prosecutors are far more likely to seek the death penalty for black defendants charged with killing white victims, according to published accounts.

The last person to be executed in Maryland was in 2004, according to the Death Penalty Information Center Web site. The first execution since the passing of the death penalty statute in Maryland was in 1994, according to the site.

Seeking the death penalty requires using a lot of resources - money for expert witnesses, office manpower, taxpayer dollars - and "the appeals go forever," Strong said.

He said the trial itself is not what uses up the resources, but "it's the getting there that's the resource eater."

Strong said prosecutors considering seeking the death penalty must have a reasonable expectation that the case can be won.

Strong would not comment about any of the pending first-degree murder cases or whether the Office of the State's Attorney will seek the death penalty in any of them.

He said that prosecutors have to issue a notice that they will seek the death penalty at least 30 days prior to trial.

The staff at the Office of the State's Attorney generally will meet and review every case. In death penalty cases, they meet to see if the facts meet the criteria or has the aggravating factors, he said.

"These cases are very fact-driven," Long said. "It's whether the aggravator exists to even begin the process, to even seek the death penalty."

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