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Maryland's decision is life or death

Two local lawmakers are in on death penalty debate

Two local lawmakers are in on death penalty debate

February 25, 2007|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

ANNAPOLIS - A life-and-death debate about capital punishment in Maryland has taken root in Washington County.

Two of the county's state lawmakers serve on the House and Senate committees considering a bill to repeal the death penalty. Hearings were held Wednesday.

The protection of correctional officers - a sizable Western Maryland constituency - is an argument put forth by opponents of a repeal.

Washington County is where a state correctional officer was shot and killed while on duty last year, allegedly by an inmate.

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Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, might have a particularly key role in helping or hindering the repeal bill's process on the Senate side.

Mooney has been described as a swing vote on the 11-member Judicial Proceedings Committee. Three members are bill sponsors; some believe two others will join them and vote in favor.

How will Mooney vote? Even he doesn't know yet, he said Friday.

Mooney, who is Catholic, said he doesn't believe in "eye for an eye" justice. But capital punishment "should be used when it's needed," he said, and the killing of a correctional officer might be one of those times.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, whose Judiciary Committee has the repeal bill on the House side, steadfastly supports the death penalty for heinous crimes - including the death of a correctional officer.

Including Maryland and Pennsylvania, 38 states have capital punishment, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. Of those states, two have moratoriums in place, while 18 others are considering abolition or moratoriums, the center's Web site says.

Governor expresses his opinion

Capital punishment opponents in Maryland are pushing to replace executions with the sentence of life in prison without parole. They argue that the death penalty has failings: Innocent people have been convicted. It's unevenly applied by jurisdiction and by race of defendant and victim. It's expensive.

This year, they have an ally in Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who, in an unusual step, testified at both repeal bill hearings even though the topic wasn't on his legislative agenda for the session.

It was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent for Catholics.

Reading from an opinion piece he wrote for that day's Washington Post, O'Malley, who is Catholic, said the death penalty damages "the concept of human dignity" and is neither just nor a deterrent.

Since 1978, Maryland has executed five people convicted of murder and set one free.

"Are any of us willing to sacrifice a member of our own family - wrongly convicted, sentenced and executed - in order to secure the execution of five rightly convicted murderers?" his opinion piece says.

Capital punishment doesn't stop people from committing crimes, O'Malley told the committee, citing higher murder rates in death penalty states.

"It would appear that the death penalty is not a deterrent, but possibly an accelerant, to murder," his opinion piece says.

He quoted a Maryland Court of Appeals judge's calculation that it costs $400,000 more to process and imprison a death penalty defendant than a defendant serving a life sentence.

Based on 56 death penalty cases in three decades, Maryland spent an extra $22 million - which could have paid for 500 new police officers or drug treatment for 10,000 addicts, the governor said.

"See, unlike the death penalty, these are investments that actually do save lives and prevent violent crime," O'Malley said.

O'Malley's predecessor, Republican Robert Ehrlich, supported the death penalty.

Also testifying Wednesday was Kirk Bloodsworth, a Maryland man sentenced to death for the rape and killing of a 9-year-old girl, but later vindicated by DNA testing.

Bloodsworth is one of 123 death-row convicts exonerated in the United States since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Although Bloodsworth presents his plight as proof that any innocent person could be convicted and executed, Shank said it shows that DNA testing is a solid and safe protection.

The corrections issue

Mooney wouldn't say whether any of the testimony influenced his views.

Shank, though, said O'Malley didn't sway him.

He said he tried to ask the governor - O'Malley testified, then left without taking questions - "What kind of message are you sending to the men and women who risk their lives every day as our correctional officers?"

Some repeal opponents have zeroed in on the death penalty as a protection for state correctional officers. Without it, a convicted murderer serving life in prison can receive no further punishment for killing again, Shank said.

"My feeling is if they do anything with the death penalty, there's no reason to keep (inmates) from killing an officer," said Ray Lushbaugh, a steward for Teamsters Local 103 and correctional officer at Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown, one of Washington County's three state prisons.

Washington County State's Attorney Charles P. Strong Jr. agreed, and cited the same reason for supporting the death penalty.

"I believe it's fair, reasonable and appropriate in very severe cases," such as killing a correctional officer, he said.

Strong's office is prosecuting murder charges against Brandon Morris, a Roxbury Correctional Institution inmate accused of shooting Officer Jeffery A. Wroten to death in January 2006 at Washington County Hospital, where Wroten was guarding him. The trial is scheduled for June.

The prosecution plans to seek the death penalty, although the state's highest court has put executions on hold because of procedural questions.

The Catholic Church opposes capital punishment "because it's the taking of human life," said the Rev. George Limmer, a former pastor at St. Mary Catholic Church in Hagerstown. "We're pro-life from the time of conception until the time of death."

Shank, a Protestant, said his religious upbringing was different and taught him that capital punishment "was clearly contemplated in the Old Testament."

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