OC Police Chief Reflects On Death Penalty Commission

OCEAN CITY – Members of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which includes Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, last week issued their final report after months of testimony from those on both sides of the issue and recommended the death penalty be abolished in the state.

The Maryland General Assembly created the 23-member commission during the 2008 legislative session and charged the appointed body with studying all aspects of the death penalty as it is currently and historically been administered in the state. For several months, the commission heard compelling testimony from a cross-section of the community from attorneys and law enforcement officials to social workers and clergy and from the families of victims of capital crimes to those formerly accused and later exonerated.

Last week, the capital punishment commission voted 13-9 to recommend abolishing the death penalty in Maryland, citing a wide variety of factors, including the misconception of capital punishment as a deterrent to violent crime, the costs of trying death penalty cases in relation to the cost of incarcerating a prisoner for life without the possibility of parole, the possibility of putting to death an innocent person and the prolonged effects on the families of victims through the lengthy appeals process.

In 1972, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty across the nation but restored it four years later in 1976 holding that states be given discretion to enact their own statutes. After more than 30 years without an execution in Maryland, convicted murderer John Thanos, whose killing spree extended to Worcester County, was executed in May 1994, becoming the first person to be executed under Maryland new capital punishment statute. Including Thanos, there have been five executions in Maryland since 1994 and there are currently five convicted criminals on death row in the state.

For several years, bills have been introduced in the General Assembly seeking to abolish the death penalty in Maryland to no avail. Last year, the assembly approved the creation of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment and asked the 23-member appointed body to dissect the issue from every angle and make a recommendation. With the panel’s recommendation to abolish the death penalty announced last week, the high stakes battle should be taken up anew when the General Assembly reconvenes next month.

As president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, DiPino was appointed to the commission to represent law enforcement. While she had her own pre-conceived notions about capital punishment going into the process, the chief said this week she was charged with providing a voice for law enforcement on the panel.

“It was a huge honor being appointed to represent the Maryland Chiefs on the panel,” she said. “I went in with the realization it was not about Bernadette DiPino’s opinion, because we all have our own opinion based on personal beliefs, but it was the opinion of the Maryland Chiefs I was representing.”

Through many meetings over the course of several months, the commission heard testimony from all sides of the issue. DiPino said valid arguments for and against the death penalty were presented, which caused her to rethink her position throughout the process.

“The arguments on both sides were quite compelling,” she said. “People are passionate on both sides. One minute, I was beginning to understand one viewpoint, and the next minute, new testimony had me changing my opinion again.”

In the end, DiPino voted against abolishing the death penalty, which was the stated position of the Maryland Chief’s Association she represented, but it was not a vote that came easy.

“It was very difficult to vote,” she said. “It was not necessarily my vote. The Maryland Chiefs felt very strongly they needed to support the minority opinion, which was to keep the death penalty in place.”

One of the most compelling arguments in favor of abolishing the death penalty has always been the possibility of putting an innocent person to death. DiPino said because the statute is evoked so infrequently in Maryland, just five have been put to death in the 30-plus years since the capital punishment statute was restored, the odds of making a terrible mistake are much lower in the state.

“There were a couple of things that were troubling,” she said. “Of course, there is always the possibility of sending an innocent person to death, but the state of Maryland does not have a lot of death penalty cases. Other states don’t handle death penalty cases the same way Maryland handles them. Because it is used on such a limited basis in Maryland, the chiefs felt it is not as arbitrary in this state. There is a lot of scrutiny.”

DiPino said the assumption for many people is that it is far more expensive to incarcerate a person for life than it is to put them to death, but the facts don’t bear that out. Because of the lengthy appeals process, it ends up costing the state much more to follow through on a capital punishment sentence.

“It’s unbelievable how expensive it is to try a capital punishment case because of the lengthy appeals,” she said. “The cases often drag on for years and years until every possible appeal is exhausted, which is as it should be, but all the while, there is no sense of closure for the victims’ families.”

From a law enforcement standpoint, keeping the death penalty makes sense for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the safety of those around a convicted felon on death row, according to the chief.

“There is great danger a person on death row could injure or kill somebody in jail including another inmate or a corrections officer,” she said. “They have already been sentenced to die. They have nothing else to lose.”