Last week the Maryland Legislature passed legislation abolishing the death penalty. I believe the time has come to repeal the death penalty because it is racially-biased, demonstrably unreliable, and not an effective deterrent. This debate is full of practical, legal, and moral questions that deserve our full attention.
Maryland’s justice system is strong. Our law enforcement, victim and witness assistance coordinators, judges, prosecutors, and corrections officers work tirelessly to keep our state safe and to ensure justice prevails. Yet our death penalty system is fundamentally flawed, and unable to effectively rid itself of biases and inaccuracies.
That’s why I believe it’s time to abolish the death penalty and replace it with the severe penalty of lifetime sentences without the possibility of parole.
Supporters of the death penalty often rely on false or incomplete information to make their case. Attorney General Doug Gansler is a supporter of the death penalty and he recently attempted to argue that the death penalty was administered in a “fair” and “race neutral” manner.
Regrettably, the facts show that the death penalty is anything but fair and race neutral.
Currently, African Americans comprise about 13% of America’s population, yet African Americans represent nearly 42%of America’s death row inmates. While cases involving African American perpetrators and Caucasian victims represent 23% of death-eligible crimes, these cases account for 70% of the death sentences carried out since 1978. Today, 80% of Maryland’s death row inmates are African American. These are not the hallmarks of an objective and race neutral system.
Attorney General Gansler suggests that the death penalty is race neutral by stating that in the majority African American jurisdictions of Prince George’s County and Baltimore City, the State’s Attorneys haven’t “traditionally” sought the death penalty. That is simply wrong. In Prince George’s County alone, they have sought the death penalty at least 11 times over the last 20 years.
The death penalty system also has a long, alarming history of inaccuracy. A recent study found that for every 8.7 Americans sent to death row, there has been one innocent person exonerated. Since 1977, a stunning 140 death row inmates in America have been exonerated with evidence of their wrongful conviction. In fact, it was in 1993 in Maryland that DNA was first used to overturn a death row sentence and prove that Kirk Bloodsworth was innocent after having spent nine years in prison. Undoubtedly, there are other inmates on death row for whom similar exculpatory evidence exists, yet for reasons either nefarious or unintended it might never be made available or come to light to exonerate them.
Attorney General Gansler describes the threat of the death penalty as a “wonderful tool for prosecutors” to get a confession and perhaps an eventual plea bargain from a defendant. However, the reality is when presented with the choice of confessing or being sentenced to death, even an innocent person may rationally choose to “confess.” The 2008 Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment - led by former U.S. Attorney General Civiletti - found that confessions alone can be unreliable.
Take the 1991 Maryland case of Anthony Gray. Gray confessed to a murder he didn’t commit to avoid the death penalty. After seven years in prison the real killer was caught and Gray was set free. He’s not alone: 25%of exonerated former death row inmates in this country originally confessed or pled guilty.
The facts also show that the death penalty is not a deterrent. In a 2009 study, 88% of criminologists stated the belief that the death penalty was not a deterrent. A related study showed that a majority of police chiefs nationwide agree. The numbers suggest they are right. In 2011, the average murder rate in states with the death penalty was more than 18% higher than in states without it.
The evidence is clear: the death penalty is not sound public policy. It’s biased, not an effective deterrent, and puts innocent people on death row.
Maryland has the opportunity to repeal this flawed system now.
We have a responsibility to build a state where fairness, truth, and justice – and not retribution or bias – are at the core of our beliefs. As long as the death penalty system is racially biased and demonstrably unreliable, it is fundamentally incompatible with our beliefs.
By abolishing the death penalty, we can be strong on justice while also protecting the innocent lives of people wrongly convicted. It’s the right path forward for Maryland.