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Will Maryland See a More Enlightened Justice System?

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A recent report by the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment found numerous flaws in that state's use of the death penalty. Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun summed it up thusly:
In its report, the commission concludes that, over the past 30 years, the death penalty in Maryland has been expensive and ineffective, riddled with error and tainted with racial and geographic disparities beyond reform. It should be abolished. The commission arrived at that recommendation after careful review of research into the familiar points of debate - the alleged biases that make the administration of the death penalty unfair, the costs of death sentences over life without parole, the benefits of executions to the state. Former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti chaired the commission. He joined with the majority in voting to recommend abolition. The final vote was 13-9, with one abstention. That's a solid majority, to be sure. But far more revealing -- and damning -- was the commission vote on what, in the minds of many, is the first and last question when it comes to the death penalty: Has its application been affected by racial bias? By a vote of 20-1, members of the commission said yes -- while there is no evidence of intentional discrimination, racial disparities exist when the race of the defendant and the race of the victim are taken into account.
This reflects similar findings by studies in other states, including here in Pennsylvania, where a study found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than were people of other ethnic origins who committed similar crimes. Where is the justice in that? As a result, in 2003 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System called for an immediate moratorium on executions, citing "strong indications that Pennsylvania's capital justice system does not operate in an even-handed manner." But, so far, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has ignored the Committee's call for a moratorium, possibly due to the fact that as a former Philadelphia District Attorney, Rendell himself had convicted many of the Commonwealth's death row prisoners. Hopefully the similar findings in Maryland will lead to a more sensible conclusion. After all, in addition to its biased application, the death penalty is demonstrably not a deterrent, and is irreversible, which is a problem given so many cases of death row inmates who have been exonerated after conviction, based on DNA or other evidence. (How many other innocent persons weren't lucky enough to be proven innocent prior to their executions? We know of at least a few.) On a more philosophical note, Amnesty International describes the death penalty as "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights." These are some of the reasons why most European nations have abolished the death penalty. But none of these considerations has moved Governor Rendell so far. On the other hand, it has been more than a year since New Jersey abolished the death penalty, and prosecutors -- yes, prosecutors! -- in that state have found no problems with the new system. So will Maryland see the light? I hope so. Like New Jersey, it would set a good example for Pennsylvania and the other states that still, unfortunately, choose knee-jerk revenge over true justice.

 

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
 

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