The Ethical and Practical Demands of a Death Penalty in Maryland

–Richard E. Vatz, Ph.D.

I have told my students off and on for 35 years that when they become grandparents, the issue of capital punishment would still be debated (I said virtually the same thing regarding fights over abortion). Some have already confirmed my prediction.

The reason I have always said that with such confidence is that there is no evidentiary resolution possible of the seminal arguments of either side: opponents of capital punishment argue that the death penalty can lead to the execution of an innocent defendant, and proponents of capital punishment claim that there are some crimes and multiples of crimes that are so heinous that the perpetrator needs to pay for the crime(s) with his/her life.

In a solid lead article by Julie Bykowicz in The Baltimore Sun (February 13, 2011) titled in the print version “A Slow Death,” she summarizes the political background of the death penalty in Maryland. She includes arguments pro and con and highlights the individual suffering of both convicted killers under death sentence and their victims’ loved ones and friends; both of these groups are condemned to fight the long battles respectively to avoid their execution or to expedite the convicts’ execution.

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The article details as well the legal battles over the availability and Constitutionality of specific means of execution in Maryland, including the specific lethal chemicals used to effect the ultimate punishment. Governor Martin O’Malley claims that the problems and stresses finding a legal means validates concerns over the “laborious and complicated and time-consuming, resource-wasting legal process” inherent in “carrying out the death penalty.”

Days earlier, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger wrote in the Sun of the stresses and problems of crime victims’ family members. Even though he was discussing life sentences and not capital punishment, State’s Attorney Shellenberger pointed out mutatis mutandis that relatives and friends of victims can never relax due to the vagaries of Maryland’s criminal justice system in which “punishment” lacks certainty and their suffering takes a back seat in some politicians’ and pundits’ hierarchy of worries.

This is essentially what struggles over capital punishment come down to: where are you going to locate the misery — in perpetrators of what my late, conservative cousin in Pennsylvania, Judge Samuel Strauss, called “the most heinous crimes produced in our society,” or in the victims of those crimes.

The stories of victims’ kin experiencing life-long sentences of misery in Bykowicz’s article shred your heart: people who must spend decades prodding the justice system just to protect its citizens and mete out the punishment and effects it promises: incapacitation, deterrence and retribution — not just rehabilitation. Deterrence is always in dispute, but the preponderance of the evidence establishes that when the death penalty is applied consistently and in reasonable time that homicide rates recede somewhat.

Bykowicz also recounts the 2009 Maryland legislative compromise which irresponsibly reduced the use of capital punishment to cases wherein there is “DNA evidence, a videotape of the crime or a videorecorded confession by the killer.” Note to killers’ resourceful lawyers who know how to navigate legal roadmaps: don’t let your clients confess. These incredibly shortsighted legal restrictions also endanger witnesses even further.

There is no recent confirmed case of an incorrect execution in the United States, and certainly in cases of multiple murders or murders committed or ordered by incarcerated killers, there will be no executions of innocent people.

Maryland needs to have a death penalty option that lessens appeal requirements and is carried out in a timely fashion. Will there be stresses? Yes, among the most despicable citizens Maryland produces, but many fewer among the innocent victims’ families and friends.

Professor Vatz teaches rhetoric and communication at Towson University

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