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Stepfather of slain Smithsburg officer presses for death penalty

January 08, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - The stepfather of a slain Smithsburg police officer is urging local state lawmakers to support the death penalty and impose it as quickly as possible.

Paul Highbarger wrote to Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, who cast the deciding vote last year against a death penalty repeal.

In his letter, Highbarger called Gov. Martin O'Malley's support of a death-penalty repeal "wrong" and said constituents want "the death penalty to be utilized, more effectively."

In a phone interview, Highbarger, of Halfway, said he wrote to Mooney because of his pivotal vote against a repeal.

Highbarger's stepson, Officer Christopher Shane Nicholson, was shot and killed while on duty Dec. 19. Douglas Wayne Pryor has been charged with killing Nicholson and with fatally stabbing Alison Munson, Pryor's ex-girlfriend.

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Because of O'Malley's support of a repeal, Nicholson's family was "not happy" he was at the Christmas Eve funeral service, Highbarger said.

He praised the governor's remarks at the service as "sincere," but added, "I just (didn't) want him near the family."

"If he came up to me," Highbarger said, "I was going to ask if he'd like to go up to Christopher and debate his position on the death penalty with Christopher."

Asked for the governor's reaction, O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese wrote in an e-mail: "The thoughts and prayers of the people of this state remain with the Nicholson family. Marylanders and the Governor respect and honor the ultimate sacrifice Officer Nicholson and his family have made, just as they respect Mr. Highbarger's views during this very difficult and sad time."

Mooney said Monday he hadn't read Highbarger's letter, which was sent by e-mail five days earlier.

Mooney said he'd send Highbarger a copy of a statement he read aloud when he voted against the repeal bill in March.

"If we were to run our prison system safely, there would be virtually no need for the death penalty," he said at the time of the vote, proposing a limited death penalty but not a full repeal. "It is my view that society has not only a right, but a duty to protect itself from those who find ways to continue to kill others even while in prison."

In his letter, Highbarger urged a "lawful 'fast-track' to process obvious, 'no doubt about what they have done,' heinous murderers, rapist(s) and child abusers; especially cop-killers; in order to process them out of this world as quickly as possible, in order to protect society, prison guards, and eliminate the possibility of future harm from these animals. Then the Good Lord can do his work in final judgment of these individuals ...."

He sent copies to other Washington County delegation members, including Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Reiterating his support for the death penalty, Shank said he disagrees with compromises O'Malley and Mooney proposed, limiting the death penalty to instances such as the killing of law enforcement officers. That would make Munson's life less valuable than Nicholson's, Shank said.

Mooney and Shank concurred with Highbarger's sentiment that legal delays are excessive. "We need to facilitate faster justice," Shank said.

Death penalty opponents have pledged to revive their fight for a repeal in the coming session. A repeal bill could go to Mooney's committee in the Senate and Shank's committee in the House.

For now, though, Maryland effectively has a death penalty moratorium. The state's highest court has put executions on hold because of procedural questions.

Abbruzzese said O'Malley is monitoring a pending U.S. Supreme Court death penalty procedure case before deciding whether to put forth new regulations for Maryland's death penalty.

In his letter, Highbarger also suggested that police officers be allowed to carry their personal firearms to protect themselves.

Washington County Sheriff's Department deputies are issued .40-caliber Beretta Px4 sidearms, but the sheriff may approve the use of additional weapons, Col. Randy Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson said uniformity, training and ammunition don't allow the widescale use of personal weapons. "It would be a budgeting nightmare," he said.

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