Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Murder victims' families seek death penalty repeal

Letter asks for life without parole for murderers

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The families of murder victims are calling on the General Assembly to end the death penalty.

Forty-nine Maryland residents, including at least seven from Montgomery County, signed a letter, calling on legislators to replace the death penalty with sentences of life without parole.

The letter, released by Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, was to be delivered Tuesday to the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, during its third public hearing in Annapolis.

The hearing, held too late for The Gazette's deadline, was to focus on the effects of prolonged capital cases and on the costs of the death penalty versus less-than-death alternative sentences.

"To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure," the letter said. "Life without parole, which begins immediately, is both of these; the death penalty is neither. Capital punishment drags victims' loved ones through an agonizing and lengthy process, holding out the promise of one punishment in the beginning and often resulting in a life sentence in the end anyway. A life without parole sentence for killers right from the start would keep society safe, hold killers responsible for their brutal and depraved acts, and would start as soon as we left the courtroom instead of leaving us in limbo."

Seven of the signees are relatives of Monsignor Thomas Wells, who in June 2000 was fatally stabbed in the rectory of Mother Seton Parish in Germantown, where he was pastor.

Another signee, Brenda Soder of Silver Spring, has seen the difficulty of coping with a loved one's murder in both her professional and personal life.

Her great uncle, Richard Bowser, a police officer in Central Pennsylvania, was kidnapped and murdered during a botched burglary attempt when Soder was a girl.

"Having lived through this experience and come out the other side I realize I don't want another family to lose a loved one. It won't help me. It won't make this a safer community," said Soder, who once worked for the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, a nonprofit organization that offers statistical information and analysis of capital punishment issues.

While the center is not an advocacy organization, Soder said, the job brought her in contact with other families of murder victims.

She found that many families, like her own, have members on both sides of the death penalty debate. Such differences can divide a family that should be focused on healing, she said.

The man and woman who killed her great uncle were both convicted. Neither one is serving a death sentence, though the man was before it was changed to life in prison.

That is fine with Soder, who said that other victims' families she met found themselves asking "Now what?" after an execution.

"It didn't change a thing," she said. "… To hold [an execution] out as a remedy for all the hurt they've experienced, it's even more painful, I would think."

Some of the relatives who signed the letter were scheduled to testify before the state commission on Tuesday.

The 23-member panel was created by legislation passed earlier this year and convened by O'Malley in June. It is headed by Benjamin R. Civiletti, who served as President Jimmy Carter's attorney general, and includes victims' relatives, clergy, corrections and law enforcement officials and attorneys from around the state, as well as three state delegates and two state senators.

Both pro- and anti-death penalty views are represented on the panel, which has heard public testimony from both sides.

A bill to repeal the death penalty died in committee during this year's General Assembly.

The bill met the same fate in 2007 when the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee deadlocked. Sen. Alexander X. Mooney (R-Dist. 3) of Urbana, a swing vote on the committee, said he was concerned the bill did not offer the option of a death sentence for prison inmates who killed corrections officers while serving life sentences.

The panel is scheduled to hold hearings on Sept. 5, and on Sept. 22, if necessary. It will meet on Oct. 7, Oct. 24 and Nov. 20 before releasing its recommendations on Dec. 15.