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From verdict to death is a slow journey in Maryland

August 04, 2006

This week, attorneys for Brandon Morris, accused in the January shooting death of Correctional Officer Jeffery Wroten, filed about 50 motions in the case, including a challenge to Maryland's method of execution as "cruel and unusual punishment."

Maryland uses a combination of three chemicals to create a lethal injection.

There have been challenges to lethal injection in other states, where opponents have said that, far from being a quiet death, it can be painful and terrifying for the subject.

Of course, most victims endure a worse death at the hands of their attackers.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said it well in a 1994 opinion that disagreed with Justice Harry Blackmun's call for an end to the death penalty.

Scalia said that to make his point, Blackmun had chosen a case involving a man shot in a tavern and left to bleed to death.

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Scalia continued:

"The death-by-injection which Justice Blackmun describes looks pretty desirable next to that. It looks even better next to some of the other cases currently before us, which Justice Blackmun did not select as the vehicle for his announcement that the death penalty is always unconstitutional.

"For example, the case of the 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat. How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!"

If Justice Scalia's view prevailed on the high court, use of the death penalty would be applied much more often than it is now.

But the truth is that the Supreme Court has tried, as Justice Blackmun said he had done for 20 years, to craft a way to apply the penalty fairly.

The result? Every high court ruling creates new grounds for appeals, According to a report from the Justice Center of the University of Alaska-Anchorage, since 1977 there have been more than 14 high court cases refining the conditions under which the death penalty can and cannot be imposed.

For example, in 1986, in Ford V. Wainwright, the court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who is insane. In Locklett v. Ohio, the court ruled that sentencing authorities must be able to consider every possible mitigating factor.

We note these factors not to oppose the death penalty, but to make the point that it takes a long time to carry it out. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s, only five people have been executed in Maryland.

The last was Wesley Baker, in December 2005. He was sentenced to death in October 1992. Others on Maryland's death rows have been there for 20 years. In Maryland, when the death penalty is involved, there is no rush to carry it out.

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