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Death-penalty opponents trying again for repeal in Maryland

March 07, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com
  • During a press conference on Wednesday about a bill proposing a repeal of Maryland's death penalty, Marty Price of Hagerstown talked about three homicides in his family.
By Andrew Schotz, Staff Writer

A Hagerstown man whose family has been through three murders has again joined the anti-death-penalty movement this year.

Marty Price of Hagerstown spoke Wednesday in Annapolis at a press conference and a Senate hearing on a repeal bill, telling a story he said he doesn’t often tell.

Price’s father, Mervil Price, was convicted of second-degree murder for fatally shooting his wife, Betty Jane Price, and his 15-year-old stepdaughter, Sherri Lynn Unger, in their Hickory Lane town house in 1988.

Price’s stepnephew, Christopher S. Nicholson, was shot and killed while on duty as a Smithsburg Police officer in 2007.

Maryland Citizens Against State Executions had Price and other relatives of murder victims talk about the toll of death-penalty cases on surviving families, including the emotional toll of the long period of prosecution.

The group is pushing for a bill to eliminate execution as the state’s top penalty and replace it with life in prison.

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The bill’s chance of success this year is slim.

“If it comes over from the Senate, we’ll address it,” House SpeakerMichael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said Wednesday.

First, the bill would have to advance out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where a similar bill was defeated in 2007, the last time there was a vote on a repeal bill.

In 2008, a repeal bill was replaced with a commission to study the death penalty.

The next year, the Maryland General Assembly tightened the death-penalty law, requiring DNA evidence, a videotaped confession, or a video recording conclusively linking the defendant to the crime before capital punishment can be considered.

A repeal bill also languished last year.

Gov. Martin O’Malley testified in favor of a repeal bill in 2007, calling capital punishment an ineffective deterrent and a poor use of money, but hasn’t pressed the issue since then.

“The Governor is still opposed to the death penalty, but it wasn’t a part of the Administration’s agenda this year,” Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman for the governor, wrote in an email on Wednesday.

No one in Maryland has been executed since 2005.

In December 2006, the Maryland Court of Appeals said the state improperly adopted its death-penalty procedure and couldn’t execute inmates until the problem was corrected.

In 2009, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services drafted a new procedure and gave it to the legislature’s Committee on Administrative, Executive & Legislative Review.

The committee had concerns, so the department submitted another draft in 2010 and one in 2011, according to department spokesman Rick Binetti.

However, the procedure includes the use of sodium thiopental, a drug that has become scarce. The death penalty cannot be carried out until that is resolved.

A study of best practices in other states “is still ongoing,” Binetti wrote in an email on Wednesday.

This year’s repeal bill has a new component: Starting in fiscal year 2014, $500,000 saved from not having a death penalty will be directed to the Maryland Victims of Crime Fund.

But during Wednesday’s Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing, state Sen.Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, questioned how that would happen, noting that the four attorneys in the public defender’s capital punishment unit would be reassigned if the law were repealed.

“Where are the savings?” Shank asked the unit’s chief attorney, Katy O’Donnell, who didn’t have an answer, but said she would look into it.

Shank supports keeping the death penalty.

Two other delegates in the Washington County delegation who favor the death penalty — Neil C. Parrott and Michael J. Hough — sit on the House Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to hear the repeal bill on March 20.

In an interview on Wednesday, Hough said he’s Catholic and pro-life, but he feels capital punishment is sometimes justified.

“If somebody’s serving a life sentence and then they kill a correctional officer, then what?” he said. “What do we give them, another life sentence? They can just keep killing people in prison?”

“If you come into Maryland,” he continued, “and then you murder and rape a little child, then, I’m sorry, but I think that’s death-penalty eligible. I do think that sends a message.”

Religious groups, including the Maryland Catholic Conference, argued the other way during Wednesday’s hearing, calling to eliminate the death penalty out of respect for all life, even for criminals.

Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, testified that the death penalty is arbitrary because justice depends on where the crime is prosecuted. Capital punishment also is racist because all of the current death-penalty convictions in Maryland involve white victims, he said.

Price, who previously has urged the legislature to repeal the death penalty, talked Wednesday about how families struggle to cope with murder.

Other relatives of Nicholson’s have lobbied in favor of the death penalty in previous years.

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