Barry Rascovar: Death penalty is a vexing issue for both sides -- Gazette.Net







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Death. It’s one of the marquee topics of the current General Assembly session.

Abolishing the death penalty is near the top of the liberal social agenda this year — the equivalent of last year’s crusade to legalize same-sex marriage.

A great deal of moralizing and hand-wringing were on display in Annapolis this week, as advocates continued their determined drive to ban the state from putting any criminal to death.

Unless you base your attitude on the Old Testament’s an eye-for-an-eye directive, the death penalty is out of place in the ethereal arena of ethics and religious teachings. It is wrong to kill another. Period. It’s what every parent teaches his or her children. Religious leaders call it a mortal sin.

African-American ministers and the NAACP have joined Annapolis advocates in large numbers this year. There’s a racist overtone to the large number of blacks put to death in evangelical, Southern states that is hard to refute.

Such a bandwagon is ideal for Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is in national campaign mode this session. He’s a convert to the abolish the death penalty movement, but converts often are the most ardent.

He used the celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last month to set out an odd set of reasons for pushing hard to remove the death penalty from Maryland law. It is a wasteful spending policy, he kept repeating (although the amount of dollars spent by the state on death penalty cases this year is minuscule.) It does not work. Otherwise, Maryland would be virtually crime-free, he asserted.

Having the death penalty on the books did nothing to keep the homicides (in Baltimore city) from rising (although the city’s murder numbers have dropped dramatically over the past decade). To govern is to choose, he said in what has become his all-purpose mantra.

All of us have to ask ourselves: Is it worth wasting taxpayer dollars on a policy that does not work? Some 141 nations have banned capital punishment, he said. The United States, which has not, is in the dubious company of China (which O’Malley called “Communist China”), Iran, North Korea, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

We know, he concluded, that the way forward is always found through greater respect for the human dignity of all.

For a politician who frequently strikes a righteous tone, this issue suits O’Malley quite nicely. But look at the other side.

Scott Shellenberger, the state’s attorney for Baltimore County, is among the most thoughtful of those arguing to retain the death penalty. The problem in Annapolis this session is that not many people are listening.

He points out that far more people in Maryland support the death penalty than oppose it. This has been consistent in polling for decades. Given all the arguments against capital punishment, how could that be?

Maryland rarely executes murderers. It is used sparingly. Throughout 40 years, Maryland has carried out capital punishment just five times (versus 474 in Texas) and has only five on death row (versus 721 in California).

In this state, The ultimate punishment is reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes, Shellenberger said recently.

Four years ago, restrictive language was added to Maryland’s law making it even more difficult to carry out capital punishment. It’s now impossible to argue that innocent people would be executed because prosecutors must prove their case through DNA evidence, a video confession or a video of the murder.

Shellenberger’s most persuasive point: When we live in times of mass murders — Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., to name a few — why would we remove the ultimate sanction for such crimes?

On Monday, a stalker shot and killed two women waiting to pass through metal detectors at a courthouse in Wilmington, Del. Also this week, a fired police officer killed four people in a revenge plot targeting Los Angeles officers.

Locally, police arrested a young man wandering through a Glen Burnie high school whose unusual and alarming answers led to a search that uncovered a stash of weapons, including a loaded, high-powered AK-47 with a 30-round magazine. If this had led to a gruesome school slaughter, would life in prison, at taxpayer expense, be the appropriate penalty?

If terrorists blow up a government office building in this state, should society’s response be life in prison and nothing more? Shellenberger asks: What do we tell our fellow citizens when the death penalty is not even available as an option?

The prosecutor believes justice must be meted out fairly to killers for their terrible deeds in ways that protect the community. The death penalty, he concludes, is a vital, last-resort option for dealing with the worst of the worst.

It’s a vexing issue. Erasing the death penalty creates new concerns and worries. Retaining it does, too. O’Malley makes it sound pain-free and simple to eliminate legal executions. If only the choice, and its consequences, were that easy.

Barry Rascovar is a political column and a writer/consultant on communications issues. He can be reached at