In Maryland, we govern by results: when a public policy works, we choose to invest in it. On the other hand, when a public policy does not produce results, we invest our limited resources instead in things that are proven to work.
Capital punishment is expensive and the overwhelming evidence tells us that it does not work as a deterrent.
Therefore, rather than continuing to throw taxpayers’ money at an ineffective death penalty, our state has chosen – with bipartisan support – to replace capital punishment with a more effective and cost efficient public policy: life without parole. We are the first state below the Mason-Dixon line to do so, but I believe other states will follow suit.
Capital punishment is not a deterrent, it is not fool-proof, it is administered with great racial disparity, it costs three times as much as life without parole, and there is no way to reverse a mistake when an innocent person is wrongly convicted.
Improving public safety is the most fundamental responsibility of our government. The death penalty does not make us stronger or more secure as a people. It is expensive, ineffective, and wasteful as a matter of public policy; it is unjust as historically applied; and its imperfections can and do result in the occasional killing of innocent people.
That is why, in Maryland, we have replaced the death penalty with the punishment of life without parole.
Baltimore Sun columnist, Dan Rodricks writes, "In death penalty repeal, reason over revenge at long last."
Many of us believe that capital punishment, first used in the Province of Maryland in 1638, should have been relegated to the trash heap long ago. Politicians in Annapolis had overwhelming evidence of its costly and debilitating flaws for many years, but too many refused to attach their names to repeal.
Even in a state where they outnumbered Republicans 2-1, numerous Democrats feared being labeled soft on crime if they voted to end state executions. Indeed, the longtime president of the Senate, a Democrat, offered to personally inject poison into a convicted killer.
That kind of red-meat rhetoric provided the tough-on-crime credits that moderate and middling Democrats nationally were instructed to compile as the party recovered from the Reagan era and the "Willie Horton panic" in 1988. Bill Clinton approved executions while governor of Arkansas. As president, he pushed Congress to expand the federal death penalty to add dozens of categories of felonies, including some crimes that didn't even result in death.
And yet, despite Clinton's cynical political calculus, some Democrats always pushed to get Maryland on the growing list of states that have abolished this immoral and inefficient practice.
The Washington Post WonkBlog posts excellent analyis, "How the media is killing the death penalty." It's by Danny Hayes.
Many of the states that have abolished capital punishment – including the recent cases of Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New York and New Jersey – are, not surprisingly, among the country’s most liberal.
But the erosion of public support for the death penalty has occurred across the nation, in large part because Americans are conflicted. Many believe capital punishment is justified, but they worry that innocent people might be executed. And as the political debate has in the last two decades focused on wrongful convictions and death row exonerations, Americans have increasingly come to evaluate the death penalty in terms of its potential unfairness.
Although a large majority of Americans – 63 percent in a December USA Today/Gallup poll – say they favor capital punishment, many nonetheless harbor misgivings.
Such ambivalence is not unique to the death penalty. Work by political scientists has shown that people often possess multiple, and competing, attitudes about lots of public policy issues. After 9/11, for example, Americans expressed discomfort with law enforcement activities that seemed to infringe on civil liberties, but many also believed that such activities were justified to protect the nation from terrorism.
But precisely because ambivalence makes people more susceptible to changing their minds, the reframing of the death penalty debate has significantly reduced support for capital punishment.
In “The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence,” political scientists Frank Baumgartner, Suzanna DeBoef and Amber Boydstun found that since the mid-1990s, news coverage of the death penalty has increasingly focused on exonerations and wrongful executions. In earlier eras, the debate in the media was more frequently about other issues, such as capital punishment’s constitutionality or cost.
This shift in media coverage, which has highlighted problems in the death penalty’s application, has encouraged the public to evaluate capital punishment in terms of fairness, especially the potential for innocent people to be sent to death row. As a consequence, Baumgartner, DeBoef and Boydstun find that along with a decline in the U.S. murder rate and other high-profile events (such as former Illinois governor George Ryan’s (R) 2001 mass commutation of death row inmates), negative news drove down support for capital punishment.
The Annapolis Capital Gazette reports, "Death penalty opponents: Repeal ends risk of fatal errors," by Alex Jackson.
By making Maryland the 18th state to repeal the death penalty, state lawmakers hope to avoid a story like Cameron Todd Willingham’s.
Willingham was executed on Feb. 17, 2004, in Texas. After the 35-year-old’s three children died in a fire at his house in 1991, he was accused of arson and convicted for the deaths.
But serious doubts were raised about the scientific proof the house had been burned down deliberately. Before his execution, Willingham said he was innocent.
A year after he was put to death, Texas established a government commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. A scientist on the commission concluded investigators had no scientific basis for claiming the fire was arson, according to The New Yorker.
More recent investigations have come up with similar findings in Willingham’s case. His family is still seeking a pardon from the state.
Maryland has had its own experience with death-penalty cases that didn’t stand up to re-examination.
As the green circles outnumbered the red ones on the House of Delegates tally board on Friday, a smile lit up Kirk Bloodsworth’s face. Bloodsworth was once labeled a monster.
Earlier coverage of the Maryland General Assembly's repeal of capital punishment begins at the link.