After several years of trying to end the death penalty, Maryland legislators voted to abolish the death penalty on Friday. It awaits the signature of Governor Martin O’Malley who has fought tirelessly to get the bill passed. It almost passed last year. This year Maryland becomes the 18th state to abolish the death penalty. Colorado and Delaware have pending bills. For the victims of violent crime, the death penalty does not provide any peace but offers years of trials and appeals and countless states’ money to pursue it. And to some on death row who have been later found to be wrongfully convicted through DNA evidence, it does nothing to give them back their lives. And government money spent in years of death penalty appeals can now be used elsewhere. Maryland’s bill once signed may go before the voters on a referendum. But this is a major step forward in the right direction.
The death penalty does not serve the interest of justice, the victim’s families or our society. Nationally, 130 innocent persons have been condemned to die since the early 1970’s. Some have been exonerated by DNA evidence. In Troy Davis’ case, there was no DNA, only tainted witness testimony. Sending one innocent person to their death is too many. In Maryland, a Commission on Capital Punishment found that for almost every 9 persons sent to death row, one innocent person has been exonerated.
Families of the victims wait often decades for their perceived “justice”. Annaliese McPhail, mother of the slain officer in the Troy Davis case says she wanted her family to “have some peace and start our lives.” Unlike McPhail’s mother, another victim’s mother is advocating for repeal of the death penalty. Vicki Schieber, the Maryland mother of a daughter who was brutally raped and killed in 1998, has testified before the U.S. Senate and several states, including New Jersey which abolished the death penalty in 2007. She says she never wanted the death sentence for her daughter’s killer even though she was pressured by the prosecutor to endorse it. She says it has brought her and her husband peace.
New Jersey became the first state in over 40 years to abolish its death penalty in 2007. But recent hard fought efforts to end in other states have failed. The momentum is growing and now is the time to keep it going. The Supreme Court has moved towards limiting the death penalty forbidding the death penalty for juveniles and mentally retarded and banning for crimes that did not involve killings.
The death penalty has not been a deterrent to crime, is expensive, racially biased and unfair. Taxpayers spend millions on a failed system. One Maryland commission found that pursuing a death penalty case is three times more expensive to taxpayers than pursuing a non-capital punishment case. In death sentences, almost half of those receiving the death penalty are black men where black males make up a significantly smaller population. The prison population is over 40 percent black men while black men make up only 6 percent of the population. Life without parole should replace the death penalty as the most severe punishment in America.
For the efforts led by Maryland Governor O’Malley, NAACP, Amnesty International, Democracy Now.org and a host of others, now is the time to continue the fight to end the death penalty.
Debbie Hines is a former Maryland prosecutor who appears in the media addressing issues on race and gender in the law and politics.