Maryland and the Politics of Capital Punishment: the Lack of Honest Debate
—Richard E. Vatz
More than most issues, the question of whether the death penalty should be maintained in Maryland seems to suffer from a lack of public debate. There were opposing editorials in The Baltimore Sun, but no pointcounter-point [Time to abolish the death penalty in Md.?” January 18, 2013].
In that semblance of a “debate,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger argued that capital punishment: 1. is supported by public opinion, 48-42; 2. is reserved for only the most heinous crimes; 3. is sufficiently restrictive to ensure that only the guilty are found so; 4. allows that there must be a punishment for repeat murderers; 5. is an issue for which the expense is irrelevant to enacting proper public policy; 6. and is a matter for which mass murders require apposite justice.
Sister Helen Prejean and Delegate Heather Mizeur, respectively a supporter of death penalty repeal and the legislative sponsor of repeal, argued that capital punishment 1. doesn’t deter crime and is less effective than other measures; 2. is racially discriminatory against those who murder white victims (they do not even mention that the race of the defendant has been found to have no effect on the likelihood of the use of capital punishment); 3. is irreversible, leading to possible putting to death of an innocent person; 4. is too expensive; 5. and is an issue on which public opinion is moving toward opposition.
In this exchange the proponent and opponents of the death penalty talk past each other. The only direct clash is the likelihood of verdict error. The combatants agree that public opinion is relevant, but disagree what said opinion is on capital punishment, and they disagree regarding whether cost should be even considered in the debate.
There is no discussion from opponents Prejean and Mizeur of the critical importance of the availability of the death penalty: 1. what to do about those who murder or order others’ murders after a life-without-parole conviction; 2. what to do about serial murders of children; 3. or how prosecutors can bargain or plea bargain with a person who facesno death penalty possibility.
In his State of the State address, Governor Martin O’Malley, consistent with the debating shortcomings of opponents of the death penalty, also cites public opinion polls without reference to their instability: when heinous crimes are in the news, support for capital punishment rises, sometimes precipitously. When Timothy McVeigh committed his grisly atrocities in Oklahoma City, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup poll indicated that 81% of the public felt he should be executed.
The Governor’s speech addressed none of the counter-arguments against his claims supporting repeal of the death penalty, and he didn’t even mention the issues of mass murder, murders of children, subsequent murders or commissioning of murders by those who receive life-without-parole, and the bargaining chip denied to prosecutors.
Maryland may be a Democratically controlled state, but this does not gainsay the need for full-fledged discussion of critical issues, especially regarding the disposition of the most egregious criminal members of our state.
The Maryland citizenry is better served by honest confrontations of the issues, particularly by those whose votes will determine whether the tool of the death penalty protecting us from the worst of the worst will disappear.
We need all the issues and evidence addressed, not ignored until it is too late.
Richard E. Vatz teaches Persuasion at Towson University and has written often on the death penalty. He is the author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013)