BERLIN — The debate over a possible repeal of Maryland’s death penalty intensified this week after a key Senate committee passed Gov. Martin O’Malley’s latest attempt to abolish capital punishment.
Early in the current session, O’Malley made repealing the death penalty a top priority this year, but gaining the approval of the Senate Judiciary Proceedings committee was considered a major stumbling block. The governor’s last effort to repeal capital punishment in the state in 2009 died in the same committee and never came before a full vote.
However, the committee narrowly approved O’Malley’s death penalty repeal bill by a vote of 6-5 this week, sending the measure to the vote on the Senate floor, where 26 of the state’s senators have either co-sponsored the bill or have declared they would support it. The bill is expected to have an easier road in the House although that chamber has not yet taken up the debate.
“It would seem to me that, especially in tough times, if there is something that we’re doing through our government that is expensive and does not work, than we should stop doing it,” O’Malley said on Tuesday. “The death penalty is expensive and does not work. And for that reason alone, I believe we should stop doing it.”
In essence, Maryland stopped “doing it” years ago. The last execution in Maryland was Wesley Baker in 2005. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was up to the individual states to determine their own policies on the death penalty. The Maryland General Assembly reinstated the death penalty by legislation in 1994 and since then, just five convicted felons have been put to death.
A common point made by advocates of repealing the death penalty is the chance of putting to death a wrongly convicted inmate and there appears to be some merit to the argument. Since the Supreme Court ruling in 1978, 11 inmates have been removed from death row in Maryland for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the accused had their sentences overturned on appeal and were sent back to prison for life without parole. A few were totally exonerated, including a case in 1993 when an inmate was determined to be innocent by DNA evidence.
It remains to be seen if the full Senate will approve the bill, but at least one local Senator will not be supporting the legislation. Delegate Jim Mathias (D-38), who represents Worcester and the lower shore, said this week he continues to be an advocate for keeping the death penalty on the books.
“I honestly believe it’s a deterrent,” he said. “It’s an important tool a prosecutor needs in certain extreme cases and I really believe the very threat of it prevents some violent crimes.”
To illustrate his point, Mathias related the story of a Baltimore City police officer who confronted an armed suspect in a robbery. The suspect got the drop on the officer, but did not pull the trigger. When the officer asked the suspect why he didn’t shoot him when he had the chance, the suspect reportedly told the officer because Maryland had the death penalty.
To further illustrate his point, Mathias this week presented a letter from former Wicomico County State’s Attorney Richard Warren to the Baltimore Sun in 1979 about the prosecution of Ellwood Leuschner for the murder of two children in Wicomico County and his questioning about the murder of a third child on the eastern shore of Virginia around the same time.
According to the letter, Warren successfully prosecuted Leuschner for the murder of Troy Krause and Rusty Marine in 1977 at a time when Maryland did not yet have the death penalty back on the books. When Leuschner was asked about his involvement in the murder of a third boy in Virginia during a lie detector test, he said, “I want you all to know for sure I had nothing to do with that boy. I wouldn’t kill anyone in Virginia because they have the death penalty.”
Warren said in the letter Leuschner’s statement proves the death penalty is a deterrent for at least some criminals and might have saved the Krause and Marine children if Maryland had the option open in 1977.
“That it will not deter all people at all times is more than self-evident,” he wrote. “But does it deter some people at some times? Leuschner seems to be saying that if Maryland had provided a death penalty in 1977, he would not have killed Rusty Marine and Troy Krause.”
In the letter, Warren said the Leuschner admission about Virginia and its death penalty should be taken under consideration during any discussion of repealing it.
“Does the death penalty have a deterrent value? Does life imprisonment provide a satisfactory substitute?” he wrote. “The Leuschner case ought to be given serious consideration by anyone approaching those questions with an open mind.”